UN Women Special Event: Zero Tolerance

UN Women Special Event: Zero Tolerance

UN Women Special Event: Zero Tolerance

The event was called Zero Tolerance: Making Society Accountable for Women’s Safety, and it featured Abby Disney, the filmmaker; two women lawyer leaders from Zonta and Sanctuary; and two officials in charge of Port Authority services at NY and NJ railway stations and airports, who spoke on issues of trafficking, prostitution and violence in our city. They all agreed that while some progress has been made in gaining women’s rights, there is still a world-wide problem with protecting women from violence, discrimination at all levels, and having equal human treatment in much of the world. As Cheryl Benton, the Chair of Metro UN Women, showed in the ad pictured above, too many people still think that women should be silenced for speaking up, taking a stand, wanting jobs, and being more than just “property.”

Each of the speakers had a special area of expertise for the audience of some 100 members or friends of UNWomen – the UN entity that was created to foster gender equality, much as UNICEF was created to help the world’s children, but which has only a fraction of the funds. One of the first speakers, Pat Latorno, from Zonta, an organization of Executives that works for Women’s Rights, stressed that discrimination has worldwide results with 70% of all women still living in poverty and 800 dying every day. She said that masculine oppression with power then leads to the evils of trafficking, prostitution, child soldiers in wartime, lack of equal education or basic health care and gun violence.

Dorchen Leithold, from Sanctuary, a domestic violence agency, followed by saying that violence as currently fostered by the media in our country also dangerously encourages the sex industry and pornography, so much so that “date rape” drugs are now considered common, and legal action has been very slow to catch up or fine perpetrators. When Abby Disney spoke, she expanded on the role of the media saying that pornography is a major part of the internet and that 50% of her son’s 6th grade class watch it; also that date rape at her daughter’s college isn’t even considered a crime by the men students there. Abby said that we even have trouble defining sexual violence, but that Gloria Steinem had given her one solution: think of what you would NOT want for your mother, daughter or wife and that will give you the definition.

Along with the women speakers, the men who provide protective police services at stations and airports in New York and New Jersey were also remarkably worried and concerned about the abuse they see and want to change for all women and other victims. Michael Guarnerni, who is in charge of services at Penn Station, stressed that he had a wonderful upbringing with a strong mother and family values, and told of the Youth Service program he has built at that station for discovering, finding and rescuing runaways, who are often teenagers of both sexes answering sex ads or foreigners caught in the trafficking process. The work they do screening minors and reuniting about half of them with their families gave an encouraging note to his account. With 200,000 passing through the station every day, they have bus drivers, ticket sellers and other agents on the lookout constantly to help find the stray runaway or immigrant girl ready to be trapped, often for years to come.

Steve Rotolo, who is similarly in charge of airport offenses and security at Newark, said that his current concern was with the forthcoming Superbowl, which will bring large numbers of pimps and prostitutes to the area with resulting violence, calls for police help and all the bad consequences for women and minors. Both men agreed that the laws need to be changed to hold men and perpetrators more accountable, and that education such as they give their officers is a major key to treating people as humans and helping wherever they see or sense injury or injustice.

Perhaps the most positive note of remedies and solutions was struck by a discussion of what some Scandinavian countries are now doing. According to Dorchen, both Sweden and Norway have changed their whole outlook on the sex trade industry, realizing that it was being driven by the need for young, exotic and compliant women, often from the Balkan countries. There is now a law enforcing that buyers are responsible and can be fined; it is a crime to buy sex and there have been over 2000 criminal arrests. Furthermore, there have been commercial movies of the Balkan women often resorting to suicide and some publicity about “Johns” arrested. The result has been a drastic decline in the trafficking to those countries, so much so that the industry has been given advice to go elsewhere.

Abby Disney also added some colorful ideas of her own. As she said, she began her recent career as a filmmaker concentrating on women with a study of women and war for a PhD at Columbia University. In the course of her study, which led her eventually to her first film on the women in Liberia, she learned that while most of history thinks that wars always involve prostitution, it wasn’t true for Napoleon who shot any of his offending soldiers on sight. Abby stressed that leadership can make all the difference, and that our modern society has become one of tolerators; that we should shame the “Johns” instead. “Rape should be as embarrassing as child-molesting,” she said, and “white men are unconscious of their privilege – they must change and shame themselves and help women to fight for their rights.”

All there agreed that education and the use of positive media campaigns can help correct the climate of abuse, but it was also noted that strong leadership of all kinds is needed since the fight is against a $32 billion dollar trafficking industry and uncounted amounts spent on pornography, prostitution, drugs and guns, all of which contribute to slow progress for women on their road to equality and the rights that men already have!

Connie Tate, January 2014