Uprising - Mothers and Daughters Engage Political and Public Will for New Age Advocacy

Sally Armstrong, Canadian author and journalist involved in the WLUML network, spoke at the 59th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women in March 2015.  Her talk, given to the panel session on political will and public will, focused on individual personal will as an important component in struggles for gender equality.

UN CSW 59 Panel – Political Will & Public Will: Fine Tuning for Gender Advocacy - March 10, 2015 - NYC

By Sally Armstrong

I’ll speak to the issue of political will and public will as an activist. The research I did for my book Uprising: A New Age is Dawning for Every Mother’s Daughter shows a change in political and public will. Maybe it’s because women the world over are fed up with waiting for politicians to do the right thing. Maybe they’re also fed up with putting women into shelters and marching in protest against rape and signing petitions to increase our right to participate. Whatever it is and maybe it’s because of the gains that have been made in education – the issue of personal will has taken the stage and is playing a powerful role today.

Malala Yousazai is a prime example. She didn’t make world headlines because a politician in the Swat Valley signed a paper saying she should go to school. Nor did she go to school because of a public protest. There was no worldwide protest about girls not going to school in the Swat Valley. Malala decided she was going to school. She went. She was shot in the head. Her action and then her reaction started a movement. Malala has become the world’s daughter and she got there because of personal will.

Another case in point – 160 little girls in Kenya – between the ages of 3 and 17 – sued the government for failing to protect them from being raped. There was no political or public will when it started. There are laws on the Kenyan books that make defilement a crime. But the men have impunity. No one is arrested. No one goes to jail. The case started because a 12 year old girl called Milly stood up at a village meeting and said, “I can’t go to school because I’m pregnant and I’m pregnant because that man sitting over there raped me.” The personal will of that girl started a case that made history. When they won it – they won for 10 million girls in Kenya. Now the case, known as “The 160 girls” is about both political and public will. Everyone from politicians to the public is on board to retrain the judiciary and alter the lives of girls in Kenya.

                The women and girls are talking in ways they haven’t before. The taboo about speaking out about sexual assault has been broken. Everyone knows if you can’t talk about it you can’t change it. Now women are talking.

                The earth has shifted under the status of women and girls. A new age is dawning. And that shift is propelling changes so immense it is said they will affect intractable files such as poverty, conflict and violence and bring a true accounting to culture and religion. Even the economists are weighing in. Jeffrey Sachs says the status of women and the economy are directly related – where one is flourishing so is the other. Where one’s in the ditch, so is the other. The women sitting in this room knew that to be true decades ago but when economists start talking, the talk gets traction.

                What’s more, everyone from presidents to pollsters is now saying women are the way forward – the way to reduce poverty, cut conflict, improve the economy.

                This is the talk that’s altering the relationship between political will, public will and personal will. Political will may lag behind. Public will may surge ahead or retreat. But what salvages both of them is the person who stands up and says, “This is what I want.” That electrifies the public and the political.

                There are great precedent-setting cases that back this up. In Canada there’s a famous case known as the Balcony Rapist that brings out the power of personal will. A rapist was entering the apartments of women through their balconies. The police knew the modus operandi of the rapist. But instead of warning the women, they used them as bait. Indeed the rapist was caught. But the last woman he raped sued the government for failing to protect her …. and won.

When you look at this as binary – the political and the public - it needs to be pushed by the personal – the individual who says, “This is what I want.” We’re seeing more of this today.

                Equality law and gender advocacy depend on these individuals. Social media gives easy access to their stories. Social media inspires people, lets people relate to all the details. That’s because people on Face book, twitter, tumbler etc.– put up personal accounts that are the heart and soul of the story. This provides momentum, a more powerful case for the public will to sweep the issue toward political will.

                While I don’t believe we should let the politicians off the hook – in fact we’ve let them get away with far too much, and I do believe very strongly in the power of public will – just look at the work Women Living Under Muslim Laws are doing – they are the juggernaut for change in Asia and Africa and the Middle East. But I think it’s personal will today that’s the leading game changer when it comes to gender advocacy.