Bruce Knotts is the Director of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office. In January, he travelled to Vietnam to endorse the Think Equal initiative and to China to encourage greater civil society participation at the United Nations. Here, he writes about his experience in Vietnam.
Leslee Udwin is a film maker. Her last film was a documentary, India’s Daughter, about the brutal rape of young woman from a poor family who had overcome tremendous odds to graduate as a medical doctor. To celebrate her graduation, she and her boyfriend went to a movie. After the movie, they found a bus that would take them home. The bus was a trap. The boyfriend was viciously beaten and the newly graduated medical doctor was brutally raped and died in the hospital a few days later. Leslee’s documentary focused on the rapists and their lawyers. As in most nations of the world, most rapes are not reported, when reported, most rapists are not caught, and when caught many rapists are not punished. This case was different. The rapists were caught and convicted and sentenced to death.
In her interviews with the rapists and their attorneys, none displayed any remorse. They heaped all the blame on the young medical student who had violated her family’s honor by being out after dark without the supervision of a male member of her family. She and her boyfriend deserved what they got and the rapists and their attorneys felt they have performed a public service.
The film is difficult to watch. Leslee was so affected in making the film, that she has given up film making. She has dedicated the rest of her life to educating people to Think Equal. It was clear to her that the rapists and their attorneys were programmed from an early age to think that it was OK to rape a woman who is out after dark without her parents. There are mountains of evidence that we are programmed from infancy to learn all forms of bigotry: racial, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and more. Leslee knows that if we can learn bigotry, we can unlearn it and return to our natural state of thinking equal. With the support of the best minds in education, she now promotes the Think Equal curriculum which facilitates social-emotional learning to develop impulse control, critical thinking, and compassion.
Several months ago, Leslee came to the United Nations in New York City and went to meet with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. She asked them which organizations in the UN community were best suited to help her promote the Think Equal curriculum, and they sent her to the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO).
When I met Leslee, I found her one of those remarkable people that can only be described as a “Force of Nature.” She is determined, articulate who pushes obstacles aside and gets things done. She has convinced the governments of Sri Lanka, Kenya and Botswana to adopt Think Equal as part of their national curriculum. Also, 2,000 schools around the world have adopted this curriculum. I suggested that we get her Think Equal curriculum presented in Vietnam.
I chose Vietnam because of a close personal connection my husband and I have to the current American Ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Ossius, and his partner Clayton Bond. Both Ted and Clayton are Foreign Service Officers at the Department of State. Both have been very active in GLIFAA (Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies) where I’d been an officer in the board of directors.
I told Leslee Udwin that I thought, given our (my husband’s and my) relationship with Ted and Clayton, we might be able to present Think Equal at the American Embassy in Hanoi. We made the proposal, which was accepted. On January 13th, my husband and I, and Leslee and her husband had lunch at the Ambassador’s residence with Clayton and several women’s rights and sexual orientation/gender identity human rights activist leaders. Ted could not join us as he was with John Kerry’s final overseas trip to Vietnam as Secretary of State. After lunch, we went to the American Center where we met the Deputy Chief of Mission who introduced me to an overflow crowd. I made an opening speech stressing our Unitarian Universalist values of promoting the inherent worth and dignity of everyone everywhere. I introduced the film and Leslee Udwin. After the film, India’s Daughter, Leslee led a panel discussion which included a ranking member of the Vietnamese Ministry of Education, UN staff, and Vietnamese academics. Many in the audience expressed concern that the same violence and discrimination against women portrayed in the film took place in Vietnam as well. They called on the Vietnamese Ministry of Education to adopt the Think Equal curriculum. The trip was a huge success and I feel encouraged by the direction the Vietnamese government is moving.