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Utah group empowering women celebrates chapter status

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 23 2013 7:35 p.m. MDT

The Utah chapter of the United States National Committee for United Nations Women is now official after almost 10 months of work by its cofounders.

Adam Rountree, AP

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Audio: Utah group empowering women celebrates chapter status

SALT LAKE CITY — Malala Yousefzai, 16, became a poster child for many looking to empower women and children after surviving an assassination attempt by the Taliban in October of 2012.

She continues to influence others with her example and is the youngest person ever to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

One Utah group celebrates her example and encourages those in Utah to unite in working toward the global empowerment of women and girls.

"Imagine if we come together as a community and we take this on as a community ... how much more powerful that is," said Elissa McConkie, board member of the Utah chapter for the U.S. National Committee for United Nations Women.

On Thursday, United Nations Day, the Utah chapter of the group will celebrate becoming an official chapter. From its first meeting on a snowy night in January 2012, the chapter has grown to include 25 members, including three men who serve on the board of directors.

"Our threefold mission is to essentially educate, advocate and raise funds for the program countries, or developing countries of the world where perhaps they lack the infrastructure in order to have the strong, flourishing civil society that we enjoy here," said Nikki Curtis Eberhardt, co-founder of the Utah chapter.

"What's most important, I think, to highlight is changing the narrative to one of empowerment," she said.

"As opposed to seeing women in an inferior role ... we see women as change makers in building amazing societies that flourish and where everyone's needs are provided for."

The group may face some roadblocks toward recruiting membership because of the negative opinion various groups in the state have toward the United Nations. For example, in 2004 members of the Utah House of Representatives voted to encourage Congress to cease its involvement with the United Nations.

However, the committee's Utah chapter sees its cause as winning out over negative feelings toward the United Nations.

"It's unfortunate that United Nations gets such a bad reputation here in Utah. But specifically United Nations Women is the only multi-lateral, grant making body in the world that works to improve the lives of women and girls," said Victoria Baird, co-founder of the Utah chapter.

"Its mission is to support long-term programs that address deeply embedded cultural and political practices that limit and harm women."

They seek to do this through helping women "achieve economic independence, attain political equality, protect and educate themselves about HIV and AIDS and end gender-based violence against women and girls," Baird said.

An estimated 100,000 children and teens are exploited through commercial sex trade or trafficked in the United States each year, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Many girls enter the sex trade between ages 12 and 14, according to a 2008 report by Shared Hope International, a nonprofit group that works to eliminate sex trafficking.

Nearly one in five women say they have been raped at some point in their lives in the U.S., and half of all women report that they have experienced sexual violence victimization at some point, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.

This is to say nothing of the trafficking and exploitation that occur elsewhere in the world.

"It does become an overwhelming issue," said Eberhardt, who is also a professor of economics, politics and demographics of globalization at the University of Utah. "How do you combat all of this inequality and all these empowerment issues both at home and abroad?

"Oftentimes my students at the university learn about these issues and then they just sort of scratch their heads and they say, 'What do we do now?' and it's pretty typical to feel powerless."

Utah U.N. Women "puts us in a position of power to do something about it," Eberhardt said.

The first step to helping, McConkie said, begins with each individual learning about the issues that affect women in Utah, and expanding that to understand global problems.

"And as we learn about the issues, then I think that our hearts will be touched and we will be moved to action," she said. After this, people can then share their knowledge with others.

"As we become educated we bring our friends and family to the same platform. We have the ability to be change agents," she said.

People can also become members of the new Utah chapter and attend the monthly meetings, Baird said.

Each month, the Utah group highlights an organization that is working to help women and children. Those highlighted range from refugee service groups to those working to eliminate prostitution, to advocates of education for girls in Africa.

At the end of the meetings, those who attend are given a chance to act on what they have learned, whether it's writing a letter to a congressman on the night's topic, volunteering to help teach English classes or helping raise money for sewing machines in Zambia.

Board members bring with them a wide array of international, non-profit and charity experience. Three men serve on the board, and the group seeks to recruit more.

"We know women hold up half the sky but when we join together we can make a huge difference together," board member Elise Reifschneider said.

To celebrate the new chapter, the group will host an open house at 7 p.m., Thursday at the U.'s Hinckley Institute. The free event will include a presentation about the Utah chapter of the U.S. National Committee for United Nations Women and what the organization does.

Information about the group can be found on its Facebook page, www.facebook.com/USNC.UNWomenSLC.

Audio: Utah group empowering women celebrates chapter status

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