The Youth Assembly at the United Nations

– By Neelam Punjani, Youth Champion Pakistan


Neelam Punjani_Youth Assembly.docx

I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to participate in the 20th session of the Youth Assembly at the United Nations as a Youth Delegate. It was a truly transformative experience. The Youth Assembly at the United Nations is a forum where youth leaders can learn innovative strategies and fresh approaches to enrich their work in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 20th session of the Youth Assembly proved to be one of the biggest Youth Assemblies to date with the attendance of more than 1,000 young leaders from over 100 countries across the globe.

During my four days at the United Nations, I was profoundly inspired by the dynamism and enlightened thinking of the dignitaries at the splendid General Assembly Hall. I was completely fascinated by opening remarks by Biana Kovic, Executive Director of Friendship Ambassadors Foundation. She encouraged youth delegates to work together towards achieving the SDGs and inspired us to continue along the rewarding path of service. Additionally, at the end, she gave a powerful message as a slogan “I act, we impact “which means how an individual act by young people can become the driving force for a change in future.

The journey started with the guided tour of the United Nations followed by the opening ceremony. Throughout the conference, I attended multiple workshops. The few workshops that stood out for me and that I found most helpful were “Microsoft YouthSpark: makecode.com”, “Technology as a Force for Inclusion” both led by Microsoft, “Power Differentials: How to Reach the Most Vulnerable” led by BRAC and “Opportunities in Technovation” to create the world we want and achieve gender equality” led by UN-Women. All of these workshops offered very valuable knowledge that I will use in practical work.

This was an incredibly rich experience that helped me grow professionally in several ways. The knowledge, connections, and inspiration that come from attending events like this could not be more valuable. The Youth Assembly not only provided me a platform as a youth to engage with the United Nations and other key players in sustainable development, but was also an opportunity to make new friends, meet with various collaborators, mentors, and partners. These events help to keep us grounded while exploring new possibilities in our line of work.

I can honestly say I would not have had the opportunity to learn so much and establish so many new contacts without the scholarship offered to me. I would like to thank Packard Foundation, Pakistan for providing me with such an opportunity. The learning I gained from the youth assembly conference is going to stick with me for all my life. It was a privilege to have attended the Youth Assembly and an honour to speak alongside such distinguished and dedicated global change makers.

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Debating Right from Wrong: What are Medical Morals?

– Shreeya Mashelkar, Youth Champion, India


How do we decide what’s wrong and what’s right? Every time we read a piece of news in the daily newspaper, or hear opposing views in an argument, we make up our mind as to which side we support. We presume our decision is the right one, backing it with our own reasons. What makes us go through these decision making tasks? How do we come to these positions? Most people call it their moral compass.

We all grow up with an array of opinions and rules thrown at us. Everyone, from family members, to teachers, and friends, sculpt our minds, moulding us to fit into what the idea of what society deems right and wrong. As we grow up, most of our actions are fixed almost as if by default to these norms. The more we navigate through the world with a social moral compass, the more rigid and difficult to reform our ways of thinking become.

It is in the same breath that people often bring up the closely allied concepts of ethics and morals. But there lies a vast difference in their meanings and what they mean to each person individually. In many cases, the two codes, moral and ethical, coincide. For example, if the country you live in is attacked by a foreign power, your political leadership might have to declare a state of war, obliging you to fight the enemy. To defend your country is not only ethically sanctioned but also goes by the name of patriotism. However, if a person is a strict believer of ahimsa, their personal code of moral behavior is at variance with the ‘objective’ national code of ethics.

A very similar situation could arise in the medical profession. A medical student is sworn in as a doctor after undertaking the Hippocratic Oath. The Oath is considered an ethical code that guides the conduct of doctors. One of the things stated in the Oath prohibits a medical professional from performing an abortion. But given how far our understanding of medicine, the function of medicine in society, and medical technology itself has come, how much credence should we give to a 17th-century oath? The field of medicine is defined by myriad contexts that come into play while making a decision.  If a woman does approach a doctor and requires an abortion, it’s  the doctor’s moral duty to perform the medical procedure for her patient, especially since helping a patient in need with the knowledge and skill  one possesses , is one of the foremost duties of a doctor. Her conscience, although conflicting with the age old oath, will demand her to perform an abortion.

This choice of personal morals over ethical code in not limited to just this situation. Euthanasia is another such case which was at the centre of a lot of conflict, until resolved recently. Like abortion, it too was held in the wrong by the Hippocratic Oath, which disallows the taking of a human life. When considered, the Oath put at the centre the value of human life as a justification. But to sustain a life at what costs and mental trauma to a patient was the point in counterview. And thus the oath was altered and the law to legalise euthanasia was passed under particular conditions in several countries across the world.

Much of the confrontation taking place in the world is caused when individuals and societies seek to project their moral codes and make them the ethical obligations of others. In any profession for that matter, a person can perform their job whole-heartedly only if their action resonates with their moral sense. Following ethics blindly, separating our conscience from our actions, is nothing but regressive for the human race. Ethics were made in order to pave way for the future generations, to outline a path. A path meant to be questioned by people, to be forced to change its course like a river over time.

To follow professional ethical codes without applying our own conscience would make us only as good as focused racehorses. Of course, we need to consider that asserting our personal moral code on a patient in order to deny them essential services would be a violation of our larger professional obligation towards her.

I hope to see a world where people debate issues, hold their own opinion and have the willingness to listen to the contradicting points as well. A world where every person’s individual conscience is recognized as a crux of their decision making and where women are trusted to take decisions that comply with their own conscience.

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A. For Abortion!

Abortion Dictionary

The Abortion Dictionary is a fortnightly blog series and is an attempt to dispel myths and provide safe and reliable information about safe abortion and attendant issues. We start with the basics and cover a range of topics from A-Z, quite literally! Happy reading!


Abortion

The word conjures up a myriad range of images, emotions, taboos, and practices.

But what is it? The dictionary, quite clinically, refers to abortion as the deliberate termination of a human pregnancy, most often performed during the first 28 weeks. Since time immemorial, women across the world have used a range of traditional home-based practices to terminate unwanted pregnancies for a variety of reasons using whatever techniques, knowledge, and resources they had at hand. Today, the development of modern medicine guarantees women a method of safe abortion that does not jeopardise their health, or put their lives at risk.

As of 2014, it is estimated that approximately 36 abortions occur each year per 1,000 women aged 15–44 in developing regions, and 27 in developed regions. And yet, the World Health Organisation reports that 45% of all abortions globally are unsafe, which adds up to a staggering number of 25 million unsafe abortions, causing 6.9 million women to be treated for complications arising from unsafe abortions annually. [1]

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Much has been said about how ensuring women’s health and rights leads to all-round social gains – economic and otherwise. Indeed, the recognition of this fact is what guided the inclusion of sexual and reproductive health and rights as fundamental to people’s health and survival in the Sustainable Development Goals.

What then prevents women from accessing safe abortion services that are critical to their sexual and reproductive health and wellbeing?

There are a number of explanations that explain women’s inability to access safe abortion services.

One of the main challenges to accessing abortion services is the lack of a legal framework guaranteeing access to abortion services. It is well established that legal abortions are a relatively recent phenomenon with the amendments to criminal codes allowing for abortions only taking place in the mid-to-late 20th century.[2] Indeed, countries like Ireland have only recently won the right to access safe abortion legally, and others like Poland and Argentina continue to fight for the right.

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It is necessary to make available both legal and safe abortion services for women; a lack of legal option does not stop women from having abortions, it only necessitates women using unsafe and dubious means of terminating their pregnancies, putting their lives at risk.

The second major challenge to accessing safe abortion services is abortion-related stigma, which cuts across all contexts, continues to negatively affect women’s health and well-being. Accessing safe abortions is strongly influenced by the fear of being recognized by family and friends, the feeling of having done something “wrong”, and of misconceptions about what having an abortion means for future fertility and reproductive health. For as long as such stigma persists, so will unsafe procedures as women avoid trained providers in formal medical settings for the fear of being shamed or judged. [3] Even in countries where abortion is broadly legal, women’s feelings of having a stigmatized procedure can result in their fear of being judged harshly by health professionals, and of being treated as an outcast by their family and community. [4]

A number of other challenges such as cost, availability of trained medical professionals, robust health infrastructure, medical patriarchy all interact to make access to safe abortion close to impossible. Governments, medical associations and civil society organizations must spread the word about any changes in abortion law—most urgently to women, but also medical personnel (including administrative staff) and law-enforcement professionals. Unclear laws and service provision guidelines need to be clarified, especially where abortion continues to be strongly stigmatized. In addition, national health systems must create the required service-provision infrastructure and train personnel, as well as develop, issue, communicate and apply new guidelines.

Only through this can we ensure that women have the ability to exercise control over their own bodies even when institutional provisions exist to guarantee services to women, and no more women’s lives are lost to entirely preventable circumstances.


This blog has only scratched the surface of the debate around access to safe abortion. If you’re keen on learning more, stay tuned to our #AbortionDictionary series as we write about challenges, successes, and issues that relate to the right to safe to abortion.

Asian Dolls


[1] Singh S., et al. ‘Abortion Worldwide 2017: Uneven Progress and Unequal Access’. 2018. The Guttmacher Institute. https://www.guttmacher.org/report/abortion-worldwide-2017

[2] Henshaw SK, Induced abortion: a world review, 1990, Family Planning Perspectives,1990, 22(2):76–89, http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/2135512.

[3] Astbury-Ward E, Parry O and Carnwell R, Stigma, abortion, and disclosure—findings from a qualitative study, Journal of Sexual Medicine, 2012, 9(12):3137–3147, http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1743-6109.2011.02604.x.

[4] Hanschmidt F et al., Abortion stigma: a systematic review, Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2016, 48(4):169–177, http://dx.doi.org/10.1363/48e8516.

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Bearing the Brunt of Crisis: Women in Conflict Areas

The last decade has seen a drastic increase in the number of people who are displaced or living in conflict zones, and in need of humanitarian assistance. As is the case when it comes to living with vulnerabilities, the lives of women and children, especially young girls, face the brunt of marginalization. In 2016, it was estimated that of the approximately 100 million people who were targeted with humanitarian aid, an estimated 26 million were women and girls of reproductive age.[1] It is perhaps then, unnecessary to underline that the sexual and reproductive health and rights of people living in emergency situations, particularly women and girls, requires urgent attention.

It is a well-known fact that crises exacerbate existing violence against women and girls, and present additional forms of violence against girls and women. The insecurities inherent to conflict situations, and subsequent life as a refugee gives rise to many forms of gender-based violence (GBV), including sexual violence, threats of trafficking, and forced marriage. Further, girls and women are often more greatly affected by both sudden and slow-onset emergencies, and often face diverse sexual and reproductive health challenges. The violence faced by women is further compounded by the fact that these women have limited access to healthcare, and when they do, health care systems refuse to acknowledge the consequences of such sexual violence[2]. As a consequence, in addition to being serious human rights violations, these abuses contribute to unintended pregnancies, and in turn, can lead to high rates of unsafe abortion and maternal mortality. According to UNFPA estimates, three-fifths of all maternal deaths globally, take place in humanitarian and fragile contexts. Of this, between 25–50% of maternal deaths in refugee settings are due to complications of unsafe abortion.[3]

There is an immense need for health systems to enable women to exercise autonomy by providing effective contraception, as well as the ability to terminate unwanted pregnancies legally and safely.

It is this context that our interview with Rola Yasmine, Founder, The A-Project, Lebanon, becomes even more significant. Last year, she had spoken with us about her work with Syrian women who are refugees in Lebanon; we’ve reproduced part of that conversation here:

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Can you talk about the inter-linkages between sexual violence and abortion rights in your work with displaced/refugee women?

I think actually focusing only on sexual violence may not necessarily be the only angle to talk about displaced citizens and violence against women. I think to some extent, people want to see more of sexual violence in refugee settings because there’s a demand to have images that pity and victimize women. But there is so much violence against women who are displaced that is not necessarily sexual by nature. I think that institutionalized racism and xenophobia limits refugees’ access to all sorts of basic services, especially for reproductive health and safe abortions and that is also violence against women.

Can you give specific examples of refugee women’s experiences while seeking sexual and/or reproductive services?

Women tell me that they go to pharmacies to get contraception or to get misoprostol and pharmacists harass them not because they want to do abortions but because they are Syrian, blatantly saying “is this really the time for you people to be procreating?” These kinds of statements are not only said by pharmacists but also from physicians, midwives and nurses, and not only Lebanese but also Syrian doctors and midwives of middle-class upbringing.

The educated middle class do not see that even in the middle and upper classes, people have unprotected sex all the time and women become pregnant and have unwanted pregnancies, they just have money enough to cover it up. The lives of people in poverty are just so exposed and so transparent so it’s so easy to point at them and say “wow you guys are really behind.”

Can you talk about women’s experiences accessing abortion?

One woman called us from a refugee camp in the North of Lebanon; she was a widow and had 2 children, one whom had an untreated serious health condition of Hydrocephalus. She re-married thinking that it may help her take care of her children, but the man she married was a divorcee who had a child that he wanted someone to take care of which is why he was looking to remarry. He was physically violent and severely abusive and would keep threatening her with divorce although he gave her nothing in monetary value to her or her kids. She was looking for an abortion, but it was a little difficult and when she finally asked for it she faced resistance. She started taking all sorts of over the counter medication.

While less frequent, there have been callers who have faced sexual violence and rape and calling for post-abortion care. A widowed Syrian woman was raped in a refugee camp and she couldn’t tell anyone about the rape because it was a powerful and violent Lebanese man in the camps. She was worried that if she said she was raped, people may think she was doing sex work.

What is the role played by the International NGOs (INGOs) involved?

Service providers in INGOs asking women if they are married may be a deterrent to care for those who are separated, widowed, unmarried, divorced, and/ or doing sex work. Many women have said that they keep getting told to come to counselling and mental health sessions to talk and re-talk rape that she’s experiences and process it, while they are usually looking for safety from a repeat offender or an abortion if the rape resulted in a pregnancy.

It isn’t surprising that talking to a counsellor isn’t on the top-ten list of needs to many refugees. What is upsetting is that you hear service providers wrongfully presume that refugees reject mental health counselling because of the stigma around the field and it not be seen as a real science – when it’s just seen as a bit of a luxury at this point or foreign practice at any point in their lives.

What do you see as the role of The A Project in this context?

The A project works on giving information about reproductive and sexual health as well as referrals subsidized or free services. We work on politicizing the conversation around sexuality and gender, whether with local activists or healthcare providers.

Part of the A Project really is the launch of a Hotline to talk about all things to do with sexuality and gender so you don’t get a washed down answer on how effective a condom is and its 3% failure rate. But you talk about the politics of how it’s really difficult to negotiate it sometimes, the barriers that aren’t as easy to quantify. So it is to have the conversation within feminist politics and expose medical patriarchy. We also do political sensitization trainings for health care providers.”

 We work on producing feminist research and knowledge that responds to the patriarchal hegemony that demonizes and problematizes the agency and autonomy of young women, queer women, refugee and migrant women, sex workers, and gender non-conforming folks.


You can read more about Rola’s work in Lebanon here.

For more about what the A-Project does, follow them on Twitter.


[1] http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/news/srhr-refugees-migrant/en/

[2] https://www.reproductiverights.org/sites/crr.civicactions.net/files/documents/ga_bp_conflictncrisis_2017_07_25.pdf

[3] https://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/sowp/downloads/State_of_World_Population_2015_EN.pdf

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God is dead. Women killed him. Finally.

So you may have heard the news that broke over the weekend about Morgan Freeman aka Hollywood face of God who has been accused by 8 women of sexual assault.

It is a terrible blow to imagine that the Voice we all love and the smiling wise character of God he always played has turned to dust in our mouths. His net assets are worth 200 million dollars so of course, he has good lawyers and he has, of course, issued a denial.

As did Bill Cosby initially. And Woody Allen. And Harvey Weinstein. And…….

But you know what? Whatever the eventual outcome, this is a good thing! It seems unfair in case he does turn out to be innocent, but this is lifting the final curtain and peeking beyond the shadows on the walls of our cave.

Plato’s cave is one of the most important and powerful allegories forming the basis of Western philosophy.

Briefly– it talks of a cave where some people are held and they only see shadows on the walls of the cave as things move around outside. One of them finally goes out and sees the actual reality which is casting the shadows. He comes back to tell them and they threaten to kill him for breaking their illusions.

That, in a nutshell, is most people……

We may speak of Feminism and Equality endlessly but Patriarchy and Power will never be amenable to mere ‘modification’. The entire edifice needs to be shattered, the uprooting and rebuilding may take raging ages and cause a lot of collateral damage, but this is a war that has to be won.

god isdead

This is what Jessa Crispin is saying in her book Why I am not a Feminist. She says we cannot work on the inside to change this structure that imprisons us all. Do not be under any delusion that patriarchy is good for all men either! It is good only for those who are heteronormative or rich or educated or high caste but yes, within any intersection the men will ALWAYS have more privilege than women, and hence the continued need for feminism.

But perhaps the time has come to stop negotiations and begins the demolition.

How long will we just accumulate lists?

  • Abuse by Church ‘fathers’: Wikipedia actually has an alphabetized list by country. Seriously.
  • There is also a long list of our own ‘Gurus’ and Swamis in India accused and found guilty of a range of sexual assault, rape and other such cases.
  • Teachers in academia: Student’s sexual predator list names professors
  • All men in power: Example IMF President Straus- Kahn who assaulted the maid in his hotel room.
  • The Nobel prize committee for literature
  • Bill Clinton who inserted a cigar into Monica Lewinsky’s vagina and then said under oath ‘I did NOT have sexual relations with her’.
  • Rape as a weapon of war: “In the sick logic of war, rape is a highly effective weapon. Its crippling effects can last for years. By creating shame and humiliation it destroys ties within families and communities. It silences and paralyzes. We know it’s a crime. It’s been defined as one in international law. But it’s still happening. And it will continue to happen until we can make the perpetrators truly accountable.”

We see it everywhere, in all ages and spaces. Women have endured witch burning, dowry deaths, female infanticide, violence, rape, abuse.

From Shurpanakha whose nose being cut off may well have been a euphemism for being raped by Laxman to Malala who was shot at for the heinous crime of wanting to go to school.

From the Boko Haram kidnappings: After the 270 they kidnapped so many years ago, they recently kidnapped 110 more. It did not even make front page news.

To our beloved Indian government which refused to criminalize marital rape. “India’s government has rejected calls to outlaw marital rape after saying it could destabilize the institution of marriage and put husbands at risk of harassment.”

Statistics say one woman is raped every hour somewhere in India. Most rapes are by someone known to the survivor. You do the math.

Even the relationship between Brahma and Saraswati is a bit dodgy, to say the least. Did she not exist before him? Or was she his daughter or his consort? Or both?

Kali and Durga as goddesses have always had to rise only to fight evil men.

It is time now to use our energies to not just have to defend and attack but to grow a positive human civilization, not a ‘man’ made one.

As Alexander Solzhenitsyn says “The battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.”

Maybe someone like the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can photoshop the face of Morgan Freeman away from everything and replace it with Toni Morrison or Arundhati Roy or Beyonce or Ruth Baden Ginsberg.

arundhati roy beyonce ruth baden toni morrison

Or better still, replace it with a mirror so we can recognize the power within all of us to harness the good and overcome the evil.

As Nietzche said ‘God is Dead’. He used the phrase in a figurative sense, to express the idea that the Enlightenment had “killed” the possibility in a belief in any god having ever existed.

And I say ‘About time and Thank God for that!’

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