Launch of UN booklet on Women of African Descent human rights challenges and achievements

April 2, 2018

By Zakiya Carr Johnson*

On March 8, 2018, I participated in an expert panel organized at the United Nations Library to commemorate both the International Decade for people of African Descent and International Women’s Day. The event, “Be In Her Shoes” featured the launch of a new OHCHR publication which addresses the persistent forms of discrimination that impact Women and Girls of African Descent while highlighting some recent achievements in countries around the world.  Of particular interest, was the report’s focus on women who belong to communities descended from victims of the transatlantic slave trade and migrant African women in the diaspora. The Deputy High Commissioner, Kate Gilmore, H.E. Nozipho Joyce Mxakato-Diseko, Permanent Representative of South Africa at the United Nations Office in Geneva, and Michael Møller, Director-General, United Nations Office at Geneva and Gender Champion took part in the panel, with lively participation from an audience of over one hundred advocates, diplomats, and UN Officials.

The panel, which also included Sonia Viveros of Fundacíon Azúcar in Ecuador and Andres Alvaro Bello of the University de la Frontera in Chile, highlighted the plight and promise of Black women in the Americas, and voiced concerns about invisibility, multiple forms of discrimination, the lack of investment in untapped talent, data and inclusion, as well as economic empowerment.

Though many countries have integrated protective measures for people of African descent into laws and constitutions and some countries now collect disaggregated statistical data on the demographics of Afro-descendants; human rights mechanisms confirm that in Latin America, poverty is disproportionately high for women - but even higher still for women of African descent. Despite the fact that some countries have adopted national action plans to combat racial discrimination and that many have launched awareness raising campaigns to combating prejudice against people of African descent, violence against women and girls of African descent persists, and Black women’s political participation and opportunities for economic and educational opportunities remain limited.

The convergence of the Decade for People of African Descent with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development could provide a significant opportunity to robustly enforce laws and implement policies that will tangibly and materially better respect, protect and fulfil the rights of millions of women and girls of African descent.

The event concluded with panelist proposals for improving the levels of attention to and quality of life for women, girls and communities of African descent in the region.

My participation in the panel included the following observations:

In the Americas, we do not engage enough with women of African descent, or value them as part of the effort to build stronger and more inclusive societies. Moreover, Black women often act as the conscience and the backbone of our societies. Therefore, we need to embrace more Black women-led initiatives which strengthen and support us in our work and help the next generation of young women and men see themselves in power and in a positive light.

The presence and conditions of the African diaspora in the Americas stretching from Canada to Argentina is the living imprint of a vicious colonial history. Nevertheless, well into the third year of the International Decade for People of African Descent, there has been a marked silence on issues which continue to impact this population. If we are truly interested in eradicating poverty (pursuing the Sustainable Development Goals 2030), further strengthening democracies, and respecting human rights, the Americas must lift the shroud of silence on the current circumstances facing people of African descent. In fact, racism and colorism throughout the region is an ever- present factor of an individual's state of development. The intersection of race, color, sexual orientation, gender identity and ability often condemn one to poverty from cradle to the grave. Until we successfully unpack the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the subsequent generations of exclusion, discrimination and violence, building a bright future will remain an elusive and aspirational goal.

To change the existing paradigm, we all must be invested in offering solutions to persistent injustices.  We must remember that People of African descent are not a monolith. We must be compelled to fully understand the breadth and depth of our experiences, histories and present situations. It is vital that we recognize that people of African descent are women, we are youth, we are elders, we are rural, we are urban, and we are migrant populations. Multiple forms of discrimination create layers of inequality which must be addressed, and our diverse perspectives should be utilized to unearth new opportunities for growth and power wherever we chose to live.

I also offer the following recommendations to individuals, institutions and governments to improve the lives of Women and girls of African Descent:

  • Regularly collect data disaggregated by race and gender. The impact of inferior statistical data on Black communities perpetuates their vulnerability as a target group. This stifles development programming, effective distribution of budget resources and new opportunities for collective organizing for some of the most underserved communities in the region.
  • Increase attention to community development from the bottom up and support the role that civil society can play in nation building.
  • Promote the institutional, social, and legal frameworks that are the undergirding of a democratic society. Judicial reform, labor unions, land titling, environmental justice are all issues that affect the lives, safety and livelihood of the Black communities and black women.
  • Acknowledge that racism and racial discrimination exist and hinder progress toward building strong democracies. The costs to the Americas, which accrue, from the destruction or underutilization of its African descendant human resources are incalculable. It is unsound economic practice to further obscure and exclude African descent communities and this may carry related political costs in the future.
  • Eschew discriminatory practices and gender-based violence against women of African descent in the workplace or elsewhere.

Never again should we have a women’s forum or youth forum and ignore representation of women or youth of African descent – not just from Caribbean countries or African countries but from each country in the Americas – after all, representation matters!

* Zakiya Carr Johnson is a subject matter expert in social inclusion and diversity with extensive experience in international development and non-governmental and government relations. She has over 20 years shaping policy to include gender equity and racial equality considerations. Astute at leveraging multi-sector strategic partnerships, Zakiya builds bridges to create opportunities for economic empowerment and greater understanding in the Americas.

Zakiya served as Senior Advisor in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the United States Department of State from 2010-2017. She established the Race, Ethnicity, and Social Inclusion Unit, providing leadership as its Director, promoted inclusive policies and programs and advised agency leadership on bilateral agreements with Brazil, Colombia, and Uruguay, as well as regional initiatives. She also served as the Inter-American Foundation Representative for Venezuela and Ecuador; was Senior Technical Advisor to the Inter-American Development Bank’s Social Inclusion Trust Fund; and headed the Latin America Program at Global Rights. She has extensive experience building public private partnerships and supporting NGO coalitions in Uruguay, Peru, Colombia, and Nicaragua. She also spent three years in Sao Paulo, Brazil as International/Youth Advocacy Director with Geledes Instituto da Mulher Negra, a national organization focused on the rights of Afro- Brazilian women