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8 March 2019 International Women’s Day

The female role models who inspire us

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Let’s make sure women and girls can shape the policies, services and infrastructure that impact all our lives. And let’s support women and girls who are breaking down barriers to create a better world for everyone." UN Secretary-General, António Guterres

International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.

The 2019 theme Think equal, build smart, innovate for change focuses on innovative ways in which we can advance gender equality and the empowerment of women, particularly in the areas of social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure.

International Women's Day is also an opportunity to consider how to accelerate the 2030 Agenda, building momentum for the effective implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, especially goal number 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls; and number 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.

On 8 March 2019, UNICRI dedicates the celebration to those women who encourage us to persevere in our beliefs and to overcome obstacles. Many ordinary and courageous women inspire us to work harder to make our world a better place. They remind us our duty to make their voices heard, to help protecting their rights and advocating for justice, access to equal opportunities and ending all forms of violence and exploitation. They lead the way with their strength and determination, and their example guide us as is the most powerful tool in our daily work.

The story of the female role model of our colleague James Shaw, Senior Legal Officer

I had always some degree of a wish to help others and to make a difference, much of this coming from my mother, as well as my university education and pro bono work (advising victims of AIDS) as a young lawyer, this never really reached its point of absolute clarity until several years into my tenure as part of the United Nations family.

For reasons of confidentiality, I cannot name this woman who inspired me to do everything reasonably possible to assist women (and men) in understanding the importance that EVERYONE should be treated equally and fairly. I will say, however, that this person was a victim of human trafficking who had visited my office. I had heard of her story and was able to hear it first hand – that of having been tricked into an offer of employment in a foreign country, only to arrive in that country and have her traffickers take her passport from her; because of her dire economic circumstances, she left her two young children behind (with her mother), and had planned to send regular wire transfers to help them out.

Over the following eight months, and from day one, she was forced into sexual exploitation and engage in sex, often with more than 10 clients per day. She was beaten repeatedly, and never once was able to leave the house in which she was exploited. Only through the sympathy of one client was she able to escape and return to her country of origin. But the worst was yet to come. She returned to her small town, and courageously let her parents know what she had endured, only to find herself ostracized by her family and the community; her parents did not permit her to see or speak with her own children. The police would not help her, considering her to be a sex worker, and not a victim of anything. She could not afford anything, and almost succumbed to the syndrome of being tempted to go back to her traffickers, who were indeed pressuring her as well – it was unclear whether they actually wanted her back or whether they wanted to silence her. The weight of this collective pressure was clearly unbearable, and there simply was not enough crying or human emotion for her to expel to overcome this. Her only goal was to re-capture a life worth living, and one with her children.

I cannot go through all of the legal and practical steps that needed to be taken to assist her, in the limited ways I could, from this abyss, but she ultimately was able to (indeed had no other option to) fetch her two children and take them with her to a third neighboring country to start a new life. The absolute undefinable courage of this woman, despite all of the unjustified hardships she had to suffer, inspired me to solidify a philosophy that, if I can make a significant difference in one person’s life every year, then I am doing well; if I can do more than this, all the better.

Life can be short or long; regardless, we must all understand that if we are capable of making a difference for others, particularly for vulnerable people (and especially vulnerable women, and children) we must always undertake that challenge, for their sake and for our own. To this woman, and victim of so much unjustified suffering, I hope you and your kids are doing well, and prospering. You have inspired me in so many ways, and, I hope, have made me a better person.