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Webster University Conference Discusses 'Women's Rights as Human Rights'

The university's Institute for Human Rights held a Humanitarian Studies conference to link local efforts with global causes.

A meeting of the minds convened at for a two-day conference on women's issues in the .

The conference, titled "Women's Rights as Human Rights," was hosted by the university's Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies. Linking local organizations with international efforts has been the focus of the forum, which ran from 8:45 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Thursday and concluded today at noon.

Topics included everything from access to education to physical security and from women's empowerment to economic rights.

Among the Webster University students in attendance was Meghan Cowlang, a senior undergraduate majoring in Psychology and minoring in Women's Studies. As a future social worker, meeting with counseling professionals made for an eye-opening experience.

"I feel like as a Women's Studies student, I've learned a lot about domestic violence and rape as a war tactic," Cowlang said. "We talk about the issues, but it's hard to see the interactions of people in the field."

Cowlang learned about the event through one of her instructors.

"It's bringing together people and voices who aren't normally in the same room," said Professor Bill Barrett. "And bringing resources together so people can find more information."

Following the welcome from university representatives and the keynote address from Dr. Janaki Rajan, Barrett moderated one of three 11 a.m. breakout sessions Thursday morning.

Led by Rhonda Gray, the Executive Director of Almost Home, a St. Louis nonprofit that houses homeless teens with children, the breakout session addressed the problems facing women of color who come from a background of generational poverty and lack of education.

"Girls come to us without intention of being pregnant, it just happened," Gray said. "They had no support, no family. They’re coming from environments where they’re socialized that that’s OK."

Almost Home provides social services for 15 teens between the ages of 12 and 19 (the average age around 17), as well as 25 to 30 of the young mothers' children. Each participant is allowed to stay in the program for two years, though the staff makes sure to keep the teens plugged into the local system of service agencies.

Since beginning her position of managing the nonprofit earlier this year, Gray has attempted to shift the focus of Almost Home from simply housing women in transition and ensuring they obtain GEDs to providing a genuinely educational environment.

"If you can't read, Zumba doesn’t do you a lot of good," Gray said. "If you can't read or write, sewing doesn’t do you a lot of good. We really have to start focusing on the core fundamentals of education."

The greatest difficulty, Gray said, is convincing the young mothers to believe that a brighter future can exist for them. Social isolation has prevented them from having a frame of reference or an example of someone coming from the same background who succeeded.

For example, it would be difficult to explain the color red to someone who had not seen it before, Gray said. A similar lack of context stunts their ability to realize their full potential.

"People want to focus on the teenage pregnancy aspect of what we do," Gray said. "This cannot be reduced to a reproductive health issue. They like to keep the conversation below the waist when this needs to be an above the neck issue because this is really an economic issue."

Gray encouraged audience members to get involved by volunteering for child care and administrative roles, as well as participating in Almost Home's upcoming in-house career fair.

After a lunch break and an introduction to the topic of physical security, which addressed the widespread issue of women being victimized by rape during wars and genocides, another three breakout sessions split off to discuss further.

Jean Abbott, the Clinical Director of the Johnson Center of War and Trauma, led one of the breakouts, titled "Serving Survivors of Rape as a Weapon of War."

"The use of sexual violence is so prevalent, and it's only lately that we have research on how prevalent it is," Abbott said. "In war, rape is automatic. But the documentation is new."

While statistical figures from the First and Second World War are not available, Abbott said the problem emerged in epidemic proportions in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bosnia, Uganda and in other military conflicts since the 1990s.

Abbott related stories of therapy sessions where refugee patients described the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sounds, word associations or even someone's looks could trigger horrendous memories of sexual assault. Untreated, psychological issues stemming from gang rape, coercion, public displays of violence and any number of atrocities can contribute to deteriorating health.

"The truth is, cognitive overload leads to heart overland and body overload," Abbott said. "If you don’t process your trauma, the trauma will find a place in your body and make a home."

Earning the patient's trust and providing empathy — as well as compassion, absent of shame — establishes the building blocks toward recovery. Because empowerment stands as the opposite of domination, each small victory in therapy is worth celebrating, Abbott said.

The nonprofit organization seeks volunteers to help with driving, making snacks for children of the refugees, painting the facility and fundraising.

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