Mark Caffrey at the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM) is one of the British Institute of Human Rights’ Human Rights Champions, a group of people across the UK supporting human rights awareness in their local communities. Here one of his colleagues, Ana McCready, an intern at NICEM, blogs about a recent NICEM event to raise awareness of the human rights of ethnic minority women in Northern Ireland and how they can use international human rights to seek positive change. (Please note this blog does not necessarily represent BIHR’s views)
Held on 2nd February 2013 at the Belfast City Hall and organised by the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM), the conference “Ethnic Minority Women in Northern Ireland: from local issues to international solutions” was a successful event. Attended by over 50 women from various ethnic backgrounds, the event was co-chaired by Helena Macormac (Head of Strategic Advocacy at NICEM) and Mimi Unamoyo (Vice-Chair of Congo Support Project UK). The Chairs welcomed the participation of Hannana Siddiqui (Joint Coordinator for Southall Black Sisters, London), Marie-Thérèse N’Landu (Congo Pax, London) and Aleksandra Lojek (Bilingual Community Safety Advocate in Belfast). The theme of the event allowed speakers to share their experiences and views on the rights of black ethnic minority (BME) women, with a specific focus on violence against women.
The event highlighted the importance of using international human rights instruments to address violations of women’s rights in Northern Ireland, in particular the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). NICEM intends to submit a shadow report to the CEDAW Committee prior to the examination of the UK government in July 2013. The organisation is very keen to ensure that the rights of ethnic minority women living in Northern Ireland are addressed during the Convention monitoring process. NICEM participated in the last CEDAW Committee hearing back in 2008 and raised issues such as access to healthcare, the rights of Irish Traveller women and the rights of women unable to access public funds. This year, we want to build upon that experience and involve as many women as possible in the CEDAW process.
With this in mind the event was designed to specifically look at issues of violence against black and minority ethnic (BME) women. The term ‘violence’ was understood in its broadest sense to include issues of human trafficking, harmful traditional practices and domestic violence.
Initiating the discussion, Hannana Siddiqui commented on the leading and pioneering work Southall Black Sisters have carried out since 1979 challenging domestic violence locally and nationally. She eloquently argued that multicultural sensitivity is no excuse for moral blindness, noting how some culturally accepted practices (such as forced marriages and female circumcision) can be highly damaging to women’s rights. Hannana added that these practices are aggravated by the collusion between State and community leaders. This relationship is guided by a culturally relativist approach, based on a hierarchy of oppression where women’s human rights are constantly disregarded.
Mimi Unamoyo and Marie-Thérèse N’Landu, both human rights activists from the Democratic Republic of Congo currently living in the UK, gave poignant accounts of the ordeal of Congolese women. In Mimi’s words, women in her country have been experiencing the devastating effects of violence for too long. A hideous consequence of the war in Congo has been the systematic rape of women and young girls, used as a weapon of war because of its destructive impact on whole communities. Significantly, Marie-Thérèse added that lack of international concern for the plight of women in her country contributes to the severity of the situation.
Finally, Aleksandra Lojek shared her experiences working alongside Polish and other minority ethnic communities in Belfast to reduce the fear of crime and to support victims of hate crime and abuse. As she pointed out, one serious problem faced by victims of domestic violence is the lack of understanding and support from women in their own community. The inability to access services in their native language also prevents some women from receiving the help they need, as domestic abuse is too sensitive an issue to be discussed in the presence of an interpreter.
The presentations were followed by workshops in which participants enthusiastically shared their own experiences, providing valuable information on the real situation of BME women in Northern Ireland and the impact and progress of current anti-discrimination policies. Some of the important points raised in the discussion groups include:
- The need to empower and capacitate the still quite underdeveloped BME women’s sector in Northern Ireland.
- The importance of educating BME women and the society in general on how to recognise and combat cultural traditions which hold back women’s rights.
- How women’s experiences in their countries impact on their lives in the UK.
The conference is expected to be the beginning of a fruitful debate on how to address these very important issues. There will be follow up research and events designed to encourage participation of community members in the CEDAW monitoring process so that the voices of BME women in Northern Ireland will be heard by government representatives in a way that might not be possible otherwise. Only then can women help transform the Convention into a truly living document while contributing to setting high standards for women’s human rights.
NICEM have a blog dedicated to their work on the CEDAW process, which is updated regularly, please do check it out!