By Alysia Tate
Thursday, September 6, 2001
The international conference on racism has largely overlooked sexism and how the intersection of racism with gender bias can be doubly debilitating for women of color around the world. A handful of women reminded world leaders not to ignore gender.
DURBAN, South Africa (WOMENSENEWS)--Growing up on the slopes of Mount Kenya, Njoki Kamau's mother never went to school. When she died three years ago at age 93, she could neither read nor write. She was unable to read, because she had no access to formal education, like 1 billion others around the globe, two-thirds of them women.
She tended and plowed her farm to feed her six children. She defended herself from her husband's beatings. And she taught Njoki, her youngest daughter, what it meant to be a woman as their country struggled for independence from British colonialism.
"She was a brilliant and wise woman," Kamau told a group of women at the United Nations' World Conference Against Racism during a workshop by United to End Racism, a nongovernmental, international grassroots organization that teaches people how to undo the damage caused by racism.
And every woman has an equally important story to tell, Kamau told the racially diverse group.
"You are all like her," said Kamau, associate director of the Northwestern University Women's Center in Evanston, Ill. "The very things I said about my mother, they are true about you."
Her workshop carried the message that the intersection of race and gender should remain central at the conference, which continues through Friday, the United Nations' third addressing racism. Though race dominated the event--and hot-button issues like Zionism and reparations for slavery grabbed headlines--women leaders from around the world worked to ensure that sexism was not ignored.
According to conference participants, beginning at birth, girls in many parts of the world experience what UNICEF calls the "apartheid of gender." Their basic rights to nutrition, health care, education, equality, livelihood and even life are denied or restricted.
Most came to the Nongovernmental Organization Forum preceding the conference to press to adopt a program of action addressing gender bias that in turn could be included in conference documents adopted by governments around the world. This week, government leaders continue to debate the proposed documents with the goal of reaching consensus.
While the World Conference Against Racism did not place gender on the agenda or consider it on the same level as racism, more than 40 parallel events offered the opportunity to explore the connections between racism and gender.
Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, issued a 34-page report entitled, "Gender Dimensions of Racial Discrimination," which received little notice.
"Understanding the gender dimensions of racial discrimination is essential for designing responses to racial discrimination that are effective for both men and women," she wrote. "Clearly, the gender dimensions of racial discrimination are complex and varied. Yet, this very complexity requires the attention of the member states, national institutions, civil society and the United Nations in order to address the problem."
International women's rights advocate, Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University in New Jersey, made the argument here that women experience racism in distinct ways, so it behooves the international community to take note and take action to redress the double discrimination.
The conference documents likely won't reflect that reality, she added.
"The progress is that they mention gender, which wouldn't have happened 10 or 15 years ago," Bunch said. "But we have to build on that."
To help bring about such change, Bunch's organization sponsored a human rights hearing. About a dozen women cut through the conference rhetoric by sharing personal stories on issues including sexuality, immigration and genocide.
They included Indira Ghale, a member of the central board of the Nepal-based Feminist Dalit Organization. As a female member of the country's lowest caste--once known as "untouchables"--Ghale said she faces "double discrimination."
Each year, for instance, the families of as many as 7,000 young women from her country sell their daughters to men promising marriage. The men later sell them to Indian brothels and force them to become prostitutes.
This happens partly because their mothers, said Ghale, seek the upward social and economic mobility that women in the developed world have achieved.
"They don't have skills to earn money, they don't have jobs and their needs are growing," she said. "They want to be like other women."
That example illustrates the different ways racism affects women, Kamau said. Globalization means that most of the world's poor live in its "Global South," or Third World--and most of them are women. Racism, she said, becomes the excuse for their continued exploitation.
Telling, and listening to, each other's stories is a powerful antidote to the sexism that silences women, said Kamau and Bunch. Those who attended Kamau's workshop paired up and took turns sharing their earliest experiences with racism.
Doing that work has led at least one white leader to face the racism in her own family.
Diane Balser, a professor of Women's Studies at Boston University and a member of United to End Racism, said it took years to come to grips with her role as a white woman in the women's movement. Telling her story--over and over--to other white women, for instance, finally freed her from the shame that she felt from having grown up with a black housekeeper.
"It was very, very hard to grapple with the reality that we are oppressed as women, but also played into the oppressor role," she said. "I couldn't look at that. I couldn't admit that."
Now, she said, she can more effectively support the leadership of women of color, while continuing to play a central role herself.
That kind of alliance is key, according to Ghale.
"It's not easy for us, but we think this is our main power--to raise our issue in international ways," she said. "We need to have mutual cooperation."
Alysia Tate is a Senior Editor for The Chicago Reporter.
Center for Women's Global Leadership, Rutgers University:
Northwestern University Women's Center:
United to End Racism:
World Conference Against Racism:
"Gender Dimensions of Racial Discrimination," by the U.N. high commissioner for human rights:
http://www.unhcr.ch/pdf/wcargender.pdf (PDF file, 133KB)