Students were called upon by Kerry Kennedy, humanitarian, author and daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, to confront issues of national and international human rights violations.
Kennedy spoke to a crowd of students Wednesday night in Jamrich about injustice and human rights violations. The main focus of her speech was women’s rights in the United States and abroad.
“Violence against women is the greatest challenge faced by the international community today. The failure of governments to stop the violence makes discrimination all the more pervasive and accepted,” she said.
Violence against women, more specifically rape, is being used as a tool of warfare throughout the world for leaders to gain political power, Kennedy said. In most of these cases, the soldiers who commit these offenses go unpunished, while the women are ostracized by their communities, their families and their government, she added.
Those women who try to improve conditions for other women across the globe often risk imprisonment or death, she said. Kennedy calls these women “the Eleanor Roosevelts and Elizabeth Cady Stantons of their countries.”
Conditions in the United States are not ideal for women. In the United States alone, there were 5.3 million cases of domestic violence last year, she said. More alarmingly, she added, 30 percent of female veterans were raped while on active duty in the U.S. military. Women still only make .77 cents for every one dollar a man makes, she said, and in her home state of New York, women must pay out of pocket for birth control, while Viagra is covered by insurance.
Kennedy also spoke about the importance of voting in the presidential election, especially for women and students.
“We abdicate our right to vote at our peril. Particularly, students and women have seen their rights diminish over the last eight years,” she said. “Because of what happened with the primary in Michigan, November, for Michigan, is more important than ever. So, we really need to get out there and exercise our right and organize here and assure that we have a candidate who is going to be concerned about creating a more just and peaceful world.”
Kennedy stressed the power of the people in affecting human rights worldwide. It is not enough to sit idly by and wait for the government to do something, she said. She cited examples of the fall of Apartheid in South Africa and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.
“All of these changes came about because people fought for them, not because the government wanted to,” she said.
A play, “Speak Truth to Power,” was performed before Kennedy took the stage. The play is taken directly from the book of the same name, which consists of interviews done by Kennedy. “Speak Truth to Power,” details the trials and successes of 50 human rights activists from more than 35 countries. The play was accompanied the portraits of these activists, taken by Eddie Adams, a Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer.
“My experience has been that the play is very moving and inspiring,” said Kennedy.
“What started as a compilation of human rights issues and problems around the world quickly became, for me, much more of spiritual journey about the capacity of the human spirit to triumph even under the most horrendous and cruel of circumstances. That is, universally, what people walk away from this play with: that uplifting sense of what humanity is capable of at our very best.”
Women for Women, a student organization composed of the five all-female houses in the residence halls on campus, presented the speech. Eleven NMU students participated in the reading of the play and represented many different student organizations across campus.
Kate Sartori, member of Women for Women, has wanted to bring Kennedy and “Speak Truth to Power” to Northern for some time.
“I saw ‘Speak Truth to Power’ in 2003 and it opened my eyes to man’s inhumanity to man. Since then it has been a dream of mine to bring Kerry Kennedy and ‘Speak Truth to Power’ to Northern. I feel that this program will empower others to act on behalf of those with no voice,” she said.
Kennedy encouraged students to find a cause worth dying for and to work for justice no matter how insurmountable the cause. If they do, she added, every day will be worth living.