On Sunday, April 19, members of the Greater Middletown Chapter of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) gathered in Downey House to observe United Nations International Women’s Day. Members brought dishes representing a variety of nationalities and cultures, over which they discussed issues surrounding war, peace, and the gender wage gap.
The AAUW is a national organization that aims to promote equality and education for women and girls as well as confront the challenges faced by the demographic. The group was founded in 1881 by a small group of female college graduates, one of whom is a University alumna. The Greater Middletown chapter was the first established of the vast organization, which is now comprised of over 170,000 members, 1,000 branches, and 800 university partners. Currently, the AAUW works to address the gender pay gap and support and bolster women in science, engineering, technology, and mathematics careers.
Discussing war and peace were Nada Awa, a Syrian woman who has been living in the United States for 22 years, and Carolyn “Lynn” Shaw, a peace activist. Former Middletown Mayor Dominique Thornton served as a moderator for both discussions.
The event began with Awa introducing herself. She was born in Damascus into a middle-class, conservative family, and she received a degree in English and Translation from Damascus University. She acknowledged that she has a different view of Syria than one would find in the media.
“The whole region is very rich and very diverse,” Awa said. “You can find very different types of religions practiced there and different socioeconomic conditions. People are really diverse in that region. The area is literally the heart of the world.”
For the past 22 years, Awa has lived in the United States, though she still has family members living in Damascus. She follows all news about the current conflict in Syria and gave her personal opinion on the current situation in the Middle East, specifically its effects on women, in response to inquiries from her audience.
“Women are usually the first victims of conflict,” Awa said. “At the same time, they are the ones that hold families together and keep life going and try to lessen the effects of the wars on families. I have a certain picture, and it’s not what people might hear every day here. My concern is that wars will not stop in that part [of the world] as long as you find interest in that strategic part of the world.”
Shaw graduated from Oberlin College, served in the Peace Corps, and has spent much of her life participating in environmental activism movements across the country. In 1983, she participated in an anti-nuclear walk with 14 others from Washington, D.C., to Amarillo, Texas, to protest the building of a nuclear power plant there. Most recently, Shaw has been involved with activist efforts surrounding climate change. She is currently involved in planning a week-long conference in Washington, D.C., this May before the Federal Energy Regulator Commission.
She addressed the group about the importance of doing environmental work and making the planet viable for future generations.
“I think that those of us who are in our retirement years really need to stand up for what we believe to be our truth,” Shaw said. “We can’t just sit back on our laurels anymore. We can’t just say, ‘Well, let’s let somebody else take care of it.’”
Shaw concluded her portion of the presentation by addressing the interconnection between war and peace in the present and future.
“[Stopping] climate change and peace go together,” Shaw said. “War will break out because of lack of resources. That’s where the war will be in the future.”
During a brief intermission, various artifacts from a wide variety of cultures were put on display by members of the AAUW and further discussed. Additionally, one member demonstrated how to properly wrap a sari and shared Hindu wedding traditions and photos from her own ceremony.
Thornton then began the discussion of wage inequality with a few statistics: women in Connecticut earn about 78 percent of what men make, close to the national wage gap average. As women presently head over 40 percent of households, these families are at a distinct disadvantage that the AAUW is deeply committed to fighting.
Thornton expressed her discontent with the lack of Congressional action on the subject.
“There are [fewer] women in elected office [than men]…. [If there were not,] perhaps some of these bills which have been pending before the U.S. Congress could be passed, because this is an issue that transcends party lines,” Thornton said.