After going to the UNICEF Symposium Launch back in November and hearing from Molly Gochman about The Red Sand Project, I was eagerly awaiting the actual symposium, which took place on Monday April 15th at The Stage. And it did not disappoint. The symposium was inspiring, educational and a truly empowering experience.
The theme of this year’s symposium was Children in Conflict: Gendered Vulnerabilities. There were five speakers, who discussed many different aspects of the topic, making for a diverse, well-rounded panel. I spent the entire two hours enraptured, fascinated and in awe of these women who were taking on the world and standing up tall to make their voices heard.
The first speaker was Vanessa Farr, a consultant on gender, peace and security, specifically in the Islamic world. Farr had to Skype in as she is currently in exile from Libya, where the UN has recently decided to leave. She discussed the intersectionality of issues facing war-affected children, particularly the impact of the environment. This was an angle that I had never considered before, how war impacts the environment, putting chemicals into the ecosystem which then seeps into the genetics of future children. Farr was knowledgeable and passionate and a perfect speaker for this theme.
She did, however, go over her ten minute time slot, which caused some difficulties later as the event was very tightly scheduled. As a result, Liita Cairney and Irma Mandler’s presentation was cut short, which was unfortunate as they were offering a very different approach to the theme than the other speakers, so it would have been nice to get their complete presentation.
The next speaker was Elena Ahmed, who works for the UK government’s Department for International Development’s Protecting Children Hub. She focused on the mental health of children in conflict. Often we only think about the obvious issue in these situations: the war itself, but there are so many more aspects to their vulnerability under the surface. Ahmed’s presentation drew attention to these issues, and was simply enlightening.
The third speaker, Lisa de Pagter, is only twenty years old, but was my favourite of the night. She is a youth advocate for SRHA (sexual reproductive health rights), working to promote sexual health and raise awareness for the inequities in access to sexual and reproductive health knowledge and products, especially with those in conflict areas. “Rape is a weapon of war,” she said, and despite how harrowing that may sound, it’s true. But she is taking her anger over this, over all the injustices done to women and girls, and channeling it into finding solutions, which I found to be the most inspiring message of the night: you do not have to dwell in your anger. Use it for change.
The fourth presentation was a team: Liita Cairney and Irma Mandler. Cairney founded a company, Kalitasha, working to educate young women around the world about menstruation. Mandler is Cairney’s friend and an actress, and she discussed how you can get more in tune with your cycle through connecting with the earth and the cycle of the moon. Their ideas were interesting, though slightly off-theme, and the presentation was difficult to follow at times. After three extremely strong speakers, Cairney and Mandler were a bit off-pitch.
The night ended with a question period, with lots of audience interaction, though it was facilitated in a strange way, three or four questions being taken at once and then answered “in rounds” This meant that, inevitably, many questions went unanswered, as some were focused on more than others. Though it was still informative and engrossing, it would have been nice to have all of the audience’s questions addressed.
Overall, this year’s UNICEF Symposium was a smashing success. Though there were some hiccups, I left The Stage feeling ready to change the world and hopeful for the future. The whole team behind the event, especially the Symposium Head, Honor McWilliams, should be incredibly proud. I’m already looking forward to next year.