A quiet murmuring filled the UNIS theater on December 3, as roughly 50 high school students, all smartly dressed, sat poised and at attention. "Women's rights are human rights," quoted Janette Amer, the Human Rights Advisor of UN Women. And on that note, first made famous in 1995 by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, the 18th annual UNIS Conference on Human Rights kicked off.
Focusing on the topic of gender equality, this year's conference was held over the course of two days, and included visiting students from across the tri-state area, as well as those from UNIS. "By meeting today and talking about issues of human rights, we are all contributing to a better world," said UNIS sophomore Tejaswai T., an executive member of the Human Rights Committee. Day one featured break-out discussions in classrooms throughout UNIS, on topics including gender in the workplace, in daily life, in sports and in education. Led by UNIS students who posed questions to small groups on these issues, conversations ranged from personal anecdotes of discrimination based on gender, but also on solutions, like, "How do we inform the world of people's rights?"
Day two of the conference was held at the United Nations headquarters, where students simulated actual debate as it would be during an United Nations General Assembly. High profile keynote speakers offered word of wisdom and commented on progress made towards gender equality around the world, as well as the long road that's still to come. "In just about every nation and society, women and girls experience physical and sexual violence," said Fatoumata Ndiaye, the UNICEF Assistant Executive Director and Assistant Secretary-General. "But the good news is that more and more people are standing up for women's rights." Following addresses by Ndiaye, Clare Hutchinson, Gender Adviser of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, and Omyma David, from the Remember Slavery Programme, student participants debated and presented on pressing social issues and questions, like the role of women in armed forces, how toys shape gender identity, and restraints within the educational system.
The annual Human Rights Conference aims to raise awareness of human rights abuses in people's everyday lives. "As students, we all go through little things where we feel we are being harassed or discriminated against," said Tejaswi. "This can make us feel pessimistic about the state of equality in the world, but by speaking up, we can lend a voice to positive change."
"Young people are working towards gender rights because they understand the world will only survive and prosper if all people have equal opportunities to excel," said Ndiaye during her address. "The biggest resource is yourself, and don't ever forget that."
Click through the slideshow above to see photos from the 18th annual Human Rights Conference.