For UN Human Rights Day, on December 8 at 12PM EST, the Unitarian Universalist Association at the United Nations will be hosting “The Right to Joy: Women of African Descent Ascending,” a webinar organized to celebrate the perseverance of women of African descent globally. The joyous event has been inspired by the inaugural 2020 Women of the Diaspora Summit that took place as the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly opened up this autumn.
With renewed strength to address pressing global problems, high-level leaders initiated a discussion around the inhumane treatment of women and girls of African descent. The African Renaissance and Diaspora Network (ARDN) sponsored the monumental virtual summit, co-organized by the Republic of Costa Rica and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The conference keynote speakers consisted of female officials of African descent in various governmental and non-governmental roles, including the honorable Epsy Campbell-Barr, one of the first Afro-Latina women in office as Vice-President of the Republic of Costa Rica, and United Nations Under-Secretary-General Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women.
The United Nations is known as the premier global body that serves to maintain international peace and protect human rights, particularly the rights of vulnerable groups such as women of African descent. Historically, the UN has been criticized for its inaction, inadequacy, and ineffectiveness in preventing and redressing many humanitarian crises. Critics argue that the UN displays a grand show of morality and power but has not done enough to uphold international justice since it was created after World War II. Others consider the UN complicit in the suffering of people worldwide, as an imperialist institution that reflects bureaucratic corruption and malfeasance. The hypocrisy also runs rampant: The United States of America, unquestionably the most powerful member state of the UN, has been responsible for countless international conflicts and human rights abuses. Less powerful nations and disenfranchised communities remain at the mercy of unjust global diplomacy, losing faith in the organization constituted to address their grievances.
In spite of these worthy critiques, the United Nations has recently supported advocacy for women and girls of African descent through the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). In 2018, the OHCHR published a booklet titled “Women and Girls of African Descent: Human Rights Achievement and Challenges.” The document provides a wide global analysis of the pervasive discrimination against women and girls of African descent. It outlines the intersectional problems we face and urges States to invest in our protection for better overall sustainable development. Lately, amid social movements sparked by global civil unrest such as #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName, there has been increasing pressure on the United Nations to move beyond superficial condemnation of the maltreatment of women of African descent and towards the assurance of our security.
As the international conversation heats up about gender and racial inequality of women of the diaspora, Black women in global governance are not waiting for the UN to pursue justice. During the 2.5-hour Women of the Diaspora Summit, presenters put forth an agenda to represent, uplift, and empower Black women and girls worldwide. There was a strong emphasis on the strength and resilience of women of African descent, despite enduring abuse within intersecting domains. Because of our marginal positionality internationally, Black women are targeted, harassed, silenced, suppressed, undermined, victimized, and killed for attempting to survive in a world that does not value us or our meaningful contributions. Just this year, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor’s tragic death from police violence reanimated dialogue around the intense oppression and incomparable brutalization of Black women that continue to shorten our life spans drastically.
There are clear links between the glaring health disparities of women of African descent and active gender discrimination: Women across the diaspora face injury, illness, and death from poor access to quality care, loss of life, low girl child survival rates, and sociocultural reasons such as child marriage, low educational attainment, gender pay gaps, and spousal restrictions on health services. As such, sub-Saharan women experience the highest rates of maternal mortality and disease burden worldwide. According to UN Women, 46% of Caribbean women have experienced one form of gender-based violence in their lifetimes and continue to be exposed to this trauma. In the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic that has disproportionately affected communities of Black American women, added devastating mental and financial strain, and increased intimate partner violence worldwide, 2020 has been an even more challenging year for women of African descent. We are dying at alarming rates from pernicious structural forces that we aim to dismantle with our physical, mental, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual labor. While global anti-Blackness, patriarchy, sexism, cisnormativity, ableism, and capitalist exploitation continue to strip us of our rights to live autonomously, we are constantly fighting for our liberation, determined to overcome these forms of deprivation as the courageous “daughters of Africa,” as termed by Under-Secretary-General Dr. Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of UNFPA.
The only male presenter at the September 2020 event, Dr. Djibril Diallo, President & CEO African Renaissance and Diaspora Network Inc., encouraged all of us to sign the Red Card Pledge, an international commitment to end all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls. He asserted that it is time for the United Nations to recognize the harm and degradation that women and girls are subjected to in every nation. However, to change the world, the UN must also transform itself to operate from a true anti-oppressive lens. It is time for the United Nations to understand our painful reality, fully recognize our humanity, and prioritize protecting our inalienable rights. For the United Nations to strengthen this commitment, it must own up to its shortcomings, help countries develop collaborative partnerships and multilateral interventions against dynamic inequality, and support visible women leaders—such as the British Parliament’s Diana Abbott—who are making active moves towards racial gender equality by virtue of just being in the room.
We must demand that the UN and its member States address the multidimensional ways in which all Black women around the world are threatened and violated. Reforming global socioeconomic and political structures, policies, and programs to include, support, and safeguard the lives of women of African descent—as one of the most vulnerable populations—will have lasting effects and benefits for all societal groups.