Oct. 9, 2005 If any of the hundreds of women left Sen. Lorraine Berry's 10th Annual Women's Conference Saturday not feeling a new sense of identity, they must not have been listening.
A forum of 11 panelists ranging from pastors and academicians, authors, journalists, and health specialists, told the women, "You're stronger than you think" politically, socially, culturally and spiritually as they addressed the conference theme, "The Making of an Empowered Woman."
About 700 women packing the Marriott Frenchman's Reef ballroom listened intently as speakers challenged women's role in the workplace, the political arena, health care, and even home and hearth.
Gemma Tang Nain, acting head of the University of the West Indies Gender and Development Studies program, challenged the women to step up and speak out for themselves. " Unless women speak out," she said, "change won't happen." Nain's professional career focuses on women's issues. She has coordinated workshops on gender issues for Caribbean Community and Common Market (Caricom).
The United Nations is calling for a 30 percent "critical mass" of women delegates, Nain said. According to a UN-related website, Women continue to be vastly under represented in national parliaments in most regions. In only 14 countries do they hold 30 percent or more of the seats, in Northern Africa, Southern and Western Asia and Oceania, they hold less than 10 percent.
Women and children represent 70 percent of the world's poor and two thirds of the world's illiterate population, not to mention that 80 percent of the world's refugees and displaced persons are also women and children, according to another UN Web site.
"We must be able to enter the political area," Nain said. She said that is the only way women can be effective in illuminating social ills.
Attorney Patricia Cummins urged the women to "break down barriers." And she should know. Cummins, a member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar Association, with degrees in international law and Asia-Pacific Rim trade law from Cambridge University in England and the National University in Canberra, Australia, is also a scuba diver, sky diver, motorcyclist, professional dancer and holds a pilot's license.
However, Cummins' focus is on women's issues. She gave a colorful rundown of the fight for women's rights over the years, going back to the Bloomer Girls dress reform movement of the 1850s. She asked, "How many of you are wearing pants today?" Many, it turned out, as the women cheered themselves on.
Cummins quoted from "Ain't I a Woman?," Sojourner Truth's famous speech at the 1851 Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio which asks, "If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it; the men better let them."
HIV Program Territorial Director Taetia Jeanette Phillips-Dorsett told the group "We have to be healthy." And she explained how.
"We have to be responsible for our health," she said. She encouraged the women not only to get HIV/AIDS checkups for themselves, but to bring their partners, as well. She told the women to diplomatically encourage their partners to accompany them. "Don't try to force them; it won't work," she said.
Phillips-Dorsett had some sobering figures. She said there are 857 known cases of the virus in the territory now. "The good news is that 61 percent of women have been tested," she said. And more bad news: "There are 19 confirmed children with the virus in the territory, and several have died."
Sherri Henigan, brought the subject home.
Henigan, known to many as Rasheeda, stepped to the platform. She is a slight woman in appearance, slender, she speaks quietly; her message, however, was loud and clear it delivered a blow.
"I have a personal story," Henigan said. "I have been living with HIV/AIDS for 16 years. I moved to St. Croix with my husband in 1988. We were going to live here, raise a family. Then we found he had AIDS. He didn't fight it, and he died. I discovered I had the virus, too.
"My mother-in-law urged me to keep it quiet," Henigan said. "But when I told my own family, there were furious I hadn't told them before, and they opened their arms to me."
Henigan fought the virus. She organized a support group. "There was not much available information at that time," she said. However, the group persevered. In 2003 it received a $10,000 annual grant from the Ms. Foundation to further its efforts in informing the community about the virus, "the first such grant in V.I. history," Henigan said.
Henigan is the co-coordinator, along with Phillips-Dorsett, of the Women Together for Change Our Women Empowering All of Our Women project, funded by the grant. She urged all women to find out their HIV status, especially before becoming involved with a partner. She said, "If I could stop just one person from becoming infected with HIV, then I know my efforts will not be in vain."
In the unlikely event that any of the collected hormones in the crowded ballroom were in need of a boost, St. Croix Pastor Louise Achieved took the stage and let loose.
She said she had had an abusive relationship, but, "I walked away from the man who was abusing me and I met a gentleman who treated me like a lady. And it was Jesus Christ. I see wounded women and I tell them there is a gentleman who will treat you like a lady, just like he did me."
Her remarks were greeted with whoops and hollers from the crowd, as she told of her hardships, starting with overcoming blindness as a child. She had wanted to play the piano, which her family could not afford, but her mother gave her a guitar, and said, "learn this let God be your teacher." She said there was one aspect of women's facets that had not been addressed: "Our spiritual selves." She said, "Inner healing is the first thing."
Acevedo, pastor of the Son of Justice Church of God in Frederiksted, wound up her rousing performance with spiritual song, to more shouts of "Yes, you go girl."
Also on the program were: Joan Harrigan Farrelly, widow of former Gov.Alexander A. Farrelly, and currently a manager in the federal Environment Protection Agency; Monyka Johnigan, TV 2 news reporter; Donna M. Phillip, a breast cancer survivor and chair of the Luminary Committee for the Relay for Life of the Charlotte Kimelman Cancer Institute; Leslye Webb, a retired customs agent, an organizer of the Women's Coalition of the Family Resource Center and Safety Zone, and a member of the Police Department Victim Advocate program; Beverly Drew-Petrus, St. Thomas businesswoman and co-owner with her husband, former Sen. Allie-Alison Petrus, of five Subway franchises, and Kimberly Rodriquez, co-owner of KAR Productions, producer of the Miss Virgin Islands Royalty Pageant and director of the Ms. International Bold & Beautiful Pageant.
Dr.Celia Victor, Human Services director of Clinical Compliance, served as the conference moderator. A clinical drug specialist and psychotherapist, Victor was recently nominated to the Manchester Who's Who Registry of Executives and Professionals.
The conference was sponsored by the Violet Foundation, Inc., along with several local businesses and the Lana Vento Charitable Trust.
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