Humanity and Gender: Utu Na Undugu

A Gathering of Vision in a Time of Change

By Mary Noble, UK and Iet Veenland, Netherlands

This subject was the theme of an international conference in January this year, hosted by Feminenza, with the support of UNESCO PEER Culture of Peace Network Great Lakes Region, Africa and was held in the UN compound in Nairobi, Kenya. Few are aware of what UNESCO does, it is one of the oldest UN establishments: the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, founded on 16 November 1945, a special agency, reaching beyond the task of building classrooms in devastated countries or to publish scientific breakthroughs. Education, Social and Natural Science, Culture and Communication, it was assigned the task to build peace in the minds of men.

“...Drawing on the African concept of Ubuntu (humanity), the proposition of this conference on Humanity and Gender is that as a human race, we cannot address the problems of the world without addressing issues, attitudes and behaviours that are a departure from humanity, that still hold us back from becoming part of the solution rather than continuing to be part of the problem. Within this context, the gathering will be an opportunity to share our visions concerning the challenging issue of redefining and improving the way men and women perceive and value each other. One gender on its own cannot solve the problems of the world. The two genders coming together to serve humanity itself may have a chance...”

The Swahili title of this conference, Utu na Undugu, refers to humanity in relation to the brotherhood and sisterhood of men and women. Within the African heritage there is a natural, profound humanity, (known as Utu or Ubuntu), a strongly shared value, a natural sense of personal responsibility to one’s life, to one’s family, to one’s community. Utu na Undugu challenges us to reach for a higher level of humanity where we can come to understand that as human beings we are all brothers and sisters, and that our humanity is of the same order: When anyone suffers degradation the humanity of all is hurt.

For four days around 230 NGO leaders, from 18 countries, mostly from the Great Lakes Region of Africa, closely linked with UNESCO’s culture of Peace Network worked together to review the fundamental challenges that we all face, in understanding gender and redefining traditional gender roles. Panel discussions on themes such as redefining femininity, positive masculinity, and humanity and gender, also helped to highlight the role that women and men in Africa have played, as Agents of Change, in helping to step down the ravage of war and conflict, in bringing recovery to communities ruined by environmental damage, in rebuilding cooperatives and educational services, in healthcare, in Peace and Reconciliation efforts, in the building of democracy. Schoolteachers university professors and educators, religious leaders and youth workers, orphanages, women’s shelters, business leaders and healthcare workers found a place of exchange, communication, new ways of thinking, new friendships, new understandings and new pathways into forgiveness.

Feminenza facilitated the process, offering reference, evidence and workshops on gender, on the challenges and responsibilities in the various stages of life, on natural leadership, on forgiveness, and on humanity.

As the delegates sat in the main auditorium, or walked the vast UN compound together, learning more about the challenges but also the extraordinary progress made in combating FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), forced marriages, gender based violence, and the scourge of HIV/AIDS, always the same theme kept reappearing: it is through updating our notions of gender, in learning to grow responsibility as men and women, in seeking and protecting humanity, in forgiveness, that recovery becomes possible.

“On the one hand, a new global consciousness is beginning to emerge, a feeling for one another that surpasses race, creed or gender; a knowing that we are in truth brother and sister. This arising feeling is calling for a different response and responsibility about creating a global community in which the values of respect, care and dignity due to each life, regardless of gender, are integral to the fabric of every community. On the other hand, there is a huge cry of desperation in nations around the world as we search for new solutions to escalating poverty, disease, war, terrorism, and environmental degradation... “

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