November 24, 2013

SMILOWITZ: International Days: How Effective Are They?

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On Nov. 17, NGOs, governmental institutions and organizations from around the world recognized World Prematurity Day in an attempt to raise awareness about premature birth and how it can be prevented. Two days later, the United Nations and others observed World Toilet Day, an “international day of action” that aims to draw attention to global sanitation challenges. Today is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and in keeping with the trend, Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day. However, in light of all of these recent international days, it is worth asking how effective these days truly are. Are they actually impactful? Do they successfully raise awareness of high-profile issues that people around the world face on a daily basis?

These dates have been internationally recognized for years, along with multiple events and observances throughout the year. These include World Population Day, International Day of the Girl Child, World Mental Health Day and World Cancer Day, among others. As of right now, the UN observes a total of 118 international days each year; this month, a total of 14 international days are being recognized, and this week two days — International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People — will be observed around the world.

Typically, each international day is accompanied by a set of fact sheets, brochures, websites, videos, messages, blogs and events, all of which are meant to provide people with background information about each global issue. Each day is supposed to provide a platform for people to raise their voice about a certain issue, a forum to exchange thoughts and ideas about the origins of a problem and its possible solutions. It can also act as a rallying point for people to come together and translate their words and thoughts into action. Last week, in honor of World Toilet Day, the city of San Francisco decorated toilets and put them on display as part of a public art installation; this public display is a representation of the fact that about 2.5 billion people around the world do not have access to clean and private toilets. In addition, this public display of a private fixture coincided with efforts to raise awareness about a project to convert retired MUNI buses into mobile showers for the city’s homeless population.

San Francisco’s display is just one of the many events that take place every year in conjunction with these international days. However, although these events and observances have occurred for years, even decades, how many of them are reaching students on college campuses? Our University does recognize some of these days. For example, in conjunction with today’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, people around the world are also celebrating the 16 Days Campaign of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence from Nov. 25 through Dec. 10. As a part of the campaign, Cornell Law School’s Avon Global Center for Women and Justice plans to write a blog post for each of the 16 days to highlight different topics related to gender-based violence.

Although the Avon Center’s blog is one great example of student and university-based activism in support of these international days, is writing a blog enough to truly be engage students at Cornell? Do our professors ever start their lectures with an announcement about World Health Day or International Widows’ Day, provide some background information and then allow for a brief discussion of the issue? Even if they did, how impactful and meaningful would the day then become? Would anything change? The answers to these questions are complicated and unclear. However, as we move into this next week, it may be worth it to ponder these questions and the effectiveness of these international days, and to think about what more our University can bring to the table in order to raise awareness about the most acute and compelling problems that we as a society face today.