Letter from New York # 33

Events of the past week in the US and in other parts of the world have reminded me of the importance of strong and wise leadership – whether it comes from our politically elected leaders, former world leaders or citizens assuming leadership in response to a crisis.

For instance, the wisdom of the Global Elders in making dignity the centerpiece of their work.

The Global Elders are a group of people brought together by Nelson Mandela and they comprise Martti Ahisaari, Kofi Anan, Ela Bhatt, Lakhdar Brahimi, Gro Brundtland, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Jimmy Carter, Graca Machel, Mary Robinson and Desmond Tutu, with Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela being honorary members.

The Elders hold up dignity as being the common thread in all great faiths, religions and cultures as well as recognizing it being a central tenet of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.  Yet religious values and teachings have also been used to deepen and extend inequality and discrimination against women and girls.  In many societies, the power a girl’s father has over her is then handed to her husband.  As a result, many women have lost their dignity, control of their bodies, their futures and often their lives.

A while ago the Global Elders called on all men and boys to get behind a campaign for equality, recognizing the importance of men and boys also working to change behavior and thinking in order to have healthier, safer and more prosperous communities.  These Elders are sharing stories of progress made by and for women and girls as part of their advocacy for world leaders to promote and protect equal rights for all women.

There is a deeply rooted belief that women are worth less than men and this has led to brutal violence perpetrated on women as well as denial of women’s and girls’ access to education, employment, land, health and representation in public forums.  Even today this was evidenced in a New York Times update on Sahar Gul, the young Afghani woman who, at 13, was tortured by her in-laws after refusing to prostitute herself or have sex with the man she was forced to marry. Sahar was found months later by police in a windowless cellar lying in hay and animal dung.

In a rare nod to justice, her in-laws have been sentenced to 10 years jail, although her husband and his brother remain at large.  Sahar is recovering in a women’s shelter inKabul while many other women across the country experience similar brutal violence without it coming to light.

In this election year in the US, making human dignity part of the President’s economic platform would be powerful indeed.  For, aside from the moral issue, there are clear benefits in women being productive and active members of society, enjoying their full range of human rights.  As there are for Sikhs, who are dealing with the reverberations of the shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin last week where six people were killed.  The dignified way in which Sikh leaders responded to the shooting taught those unfamiliar with the Sikh faith about Sikh values of compassion and love.

 “This tragedy occurred as a result of ignorance and hatred,” said Jasmit Singh, member of the Gurdwara Singh Sabha ofWashington. “But we are hoping to create awareness and acceptance here inWashington. We choose not to live in fear.”

“Let love overcome hate and anger,” said Samra, Samra, a member of the Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar.

Those not of the Sikh faith joined in candlelit vigils across the country, wearing scarves and bandanas in solidarity with the local Sikh community.

It brings to mind the book that a Palestinian doctor, Izzeldin Abuelaish, wrote after three of his daughters and a niece were killed by an Israeli shell fired into their family home on January 16th 2009 during the 2008-9 war in Gaza.  It was called I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity and it is about one man’s determination to focus on reconciliation and peace.

We all need to challenge our own internal prejudices so that we can truly say at times of crisis ‘We are all New Yorkers today,’ ‘We are all Sikhs today,’ ‘We are all Queenslanders today’ and – (not really a news heading I’ve ever seen and yet the same principle applies) – ‘We are all women today.’

So, back to this proposal of the President making human dignity a central part of his economic platform.  This clearly needs to include new gun control laws.   The spiritual leader, Deepak Chopra said to interviewer Piers Morgan after the shooting at the Sikh temple,

“Guns do not belong in a civil society….There just has to be something in our system in America which means if you’re a skinhead white supremacist thrown out of the military for misconduct and you are in a band which advocates violence and racial hatred and all the rest of it, there’s got to be something that flags you up when you go and buy a gun legally.”

Leadership on gun control can be bipartisan too – as it was in Australia after the largest gun massacre perpetrated by a civilian anywhere in the world occurred in Tasmania on 28 April 1996. The weapons used by the Port Arthur murderer were designed for killing large numbers of people, and they killed 35 people and wounded 18 others.

Australian politicians had long acknowledged the need for stronger, nationally uniform gun laws, but they feared an electoral backlash from the gun lobby. It took the intervention of the then Prime Minister, John Howard, to tip the balance in favor of public safety.  Howard was undeterred by threats of political vengeance or physical violence. With the support of the Federal Opposition,  he brought the states and territories together and worked out a deal.

As a result of the tragedy, those weapons were banned from civilian ownership and more than 640,000 were bought back and destroyed. The rules applying to firearms in general were tightened, making it harder to qualify to own a gun, and especially to own more than one.

Fifteen years later, this decision on gun control has been vindicated. In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on  April 28th 2011, researchers at Harvard University reported the evidence on the impact of the reforms, concluding, ”The National Firearms Agreement seems to have been incredibly successful in terms of lives saved.”

As the article in the Sydney Morning Herald makes clear,

‘To be specific, there have been no gun massacres inAustralia since 1996, compared with 13 such tragedies during the previous 18 years. (A massacre is defined as the killing of four or more people.) Total gun deaths have been reduced: gun homicides and gun suicides had been falling gradually beforePort Arthur, but the reforms in 1996 caused that decline to accelerate dramatically. In the early 1990s, about 600 Australians were dying each year by gunfire; that figure is now fewer than 250.  As the Harvard researchers remark, ‘from the perspective of 1996, it would have been difficult to imagine more compelling future evidence of a beneficial effect of the law.”’

A comprehensive evaluation last year by the ANU researchers Christine Neill and Andrew Leigh revealed that the reforms had reduced overall homicide and suicide rates, too. In other words, gun deaths have not been replaced by other methods of homicide or suicide.  The ANU researchers estimated that 200 deaths a year have been prevented, with an annual economic saving of $500 million. That’s a $7.5 billion return on the one-off $500 million cost of the reforms to taxpayers.

Imagine the possibilities for a reshaped economy as a result of placing human dignity at the center and assuming leadership on gun control in an election year.

Yesterday, Josh and I had a glorious time wandering the streets of the West Village and Greenwich Village, and lingering in our favorite bookshop, Three Lives.  Josh bought me a card of a group of women basking in the sun, some collecting fruits from nearby trees.  The image was called Harvest – to me it felt like an affirmation of life in all its colors and dimensions.  That’s what I’ve really felt in the 14 months I’ve spent in New York, and the kinship I’ve had with people in my local community has been a constant source of joy during my time here.

Now I’m preparing to leave in order to take up a new role as Vice President of Programs with the Global Fund for Women and so my Letter from San Francisco will commence next month, spliced with letters from other parts of the world as part of my role with the Global Fund.

I hope you’ll join me on the journey.


For all the hardships and dangers of our particular political moment, there is that element of the pliable and possible about it — if we can change our minds and our hearts about what needs to be done and our responsibility to do it.

Former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson


Jane Sloane