RI Convention puts spotlight on peace, women’s empowerment, mental health

Reflecting the troubled and conflict-ridden times we live in, the one strong message that came out of the Rotary International Convention in Singapore pertained to peace, women’s empowerment and mental health. Addressing the opening session, RI President Gordon McInally struck a poignant and sombre note when he said, “All of us know, peace has been on the minds of the world this past year — and remains on the forefront of Rotary’s mission.” Quoting the Scottish poet Robert Burns, he said this was the time people of the world, particularly Rotarians, came together to use “our common humanity and our shared desire to build a more peaceful and compassionate world, especially in the times of greatest peril. World peace is a perilous, difficult journey, and we are experiencing some trying moments right now. The troubles of the world affect us deeply, because we have friends, and sometimes family and neighbours, experiencing the heartbreak of destruction and loss.”

2023-24 RI President Gordon McInally addresses a session at the RI Convention in Singapore.

But through “our service projects, humanitarian efforts, and systematic approach to peacebuilding and conflict resolution, we can be catalysts for positive change in the world. We are an example of what a better world could be — one where people find ­common ground across their divides — and common purpose in elevating humanity,” he said.

McInally said peacebuilding wasn’t about stopping wars, even though “I’m sure all of us would love to have the power to march into the war zones of the world and say ‘Stop this war’! Sadly, we don’t have that power. But I do believe that we have the power to stop wars and conflicts from starting, through building peace from the ground level up; by preventing and treating disease, by improving water, sanitation and hygiene, maternal and child health, and by basic education and literacy, community economic development, along with sustaining our environment.”

World peace is a perilous journey; the troubles of the world affect us deeply, because we have friends, family and neighbours, experiencing the heartbreak of destruction and loss.
Gordon McInally, RI President

Rotary, he said, was fortunate to have a strategic partnership with the highly respected Institute for ­Economics and Peace to help it in the mission to create a more peaceful world.”

The RI president also stressed the importance of bringing peace to those whose lives Rotarians were working so hard to improve through their community projects.

“I have been so fortunate to meet hundreds, maybe thousands of such individuals over the past year but let me introduce just three of them to you.”

The first was Kevin, 16, who lived in Buenos Aires. McInally and spouse Heather met him last ­November during a visit to Argentina. Kevin could not hear or speak and was being educated at a school funded by Rotary. “Through his sign language interpreter, Kevin told us that he hoped to graduate from school this summer and go on to college to become a motor mechanic.” His teachers confirmed the possibility of this happening. Thanks to Rotary and its work, Kevin would get the opportunity for a “more hopeful and peaceful future.”

The second person whose life Rotarians had changed was Daphne, 16, who lived in Zimbabwe and who he had met in Chandigarh in ­January during his visit to India. Here, for many years, a project spearheaded by RC Chandigarh providing lifesaving surgeries to young people suffering from congenital heart defects, had helped Daphne undergo a heart surgery and return home to Zimbabwe “to live a normal, happy and achieving life. Daphne was the 777th patient to benefit from that programme.”

The third beneficiary whose life Rotary would protect against a crippling disease like polio was Precious from the African country Malawi. He himself had the privilege of giving her two precious drops of the polio vaccine, thanks to which the little child would be protected against polio. This was yet another “example of where Rotary gave individuals the chance of a more hopeful and peaceful future.”

Responsibility is the key word here. Many people here are in positions of influence and authority. Take that power and leverage it for the good and well-being of women.
Graça Machel, women’s empowerment activist

Talking about mental health, one of his focus areas during his presidential year, McInally said “this issue is deeply personal for me. A little over 10 years ago, my brother Ian lost a long-term struggle with depression that he silently battled alone. His torment with this terrible disease consumed him — and ultimately took — his life. And for me and others who loved him, his loss left us asking why… what did we miss? What more could we have done?”

But, he added, he had shared this story “not to gain your sympathy, but to share my experience: that struggles with mental health can affect anyone, including a beloved younger brother, with a fine career and a loving, deeply caring family.” Over the last 18 months many Rotarians had shared with him similar moving stories about their own families.

Of course, Rotarians couldn’t “improve mental health and wellbeing by ending all human sorrow, pain or loneliness. Challenges are an inevitable part of life. But we can fight the stigma against reaching out for help. We can make a difference for the people we serve by investing in the tools, people, institutions, and systems that will ensure access to qualify, affordable care.”

President McInally and his wife Heather (R) with their family.

So much more could be achieved, he added by “making our clubs warm, welcoming environments, where we care for and actively listen to one another and ensure that all members feel like they belong.” He was grateful to Rotarians across the world, who had been working over the last 12 months to erase the stigma associated with discussions of emotional well-being, raising awareness on mental health needs, and improving access to mental health services.

Even though significant progress had been made over the past year, much more needed to be done, and the second day’s sessions would highlight some of the “incredible projects underway in the Rotary world, showcasing the innovative ways in which we are addressing the mental health needs of communities and setting a standard for future projects across all of our areas of focus.”

It had to be remembered that this major problem required long-term focus and commitment, to treat not only the symptoms of poor mental well-being, but to also address the underlying systemic issues that perpetuate stigma and prevent people from accessing the care and support they need. “Mental health is a personal and family struggle for so many in this world — but it is also something more. It is a global challenge that affects everything we do. It knows no boundaries of age, gender, race, or nationality. And yet, for far too long, even discussing it has led to stigma, shame, and silence,” he said.

British pop star Calum Scott performing at the convention.

But, added McInally emphatically, Rotarians would “not look the other way. You cannot show care and compassion with silence and excuses. We show it when we stand up, speak out, and take action.”

And this was just what Rotary had done. By recently helping the local community in a village in the Philippines to open a new health and wellness clinic for mothers, thus starting an informal network of peer-to-peer support group. Rotary clubs in Colorado were putting an endowment fund to ensure mental health professionals receive the right education to serve such issues faced by the youth and members of clubs across the world were showing care and compassion to one another.

The opening session had some soul-stirring songs sung by the ­British pop star Calum Scott, who has himself struggled with depression, but who has been openly talking to his fans about his struggle and how important it is to seek the right kind of help when one has issues related to mental health.

Former education minister of Mozambique and international women’s and children’s rights activist Graça Machel (R).

The delegates also had an opportunity to listen to Graça (gras-ah) Machel, who has dedicated her public life to combatting inequality and championing women’s and ­children’s rights. She was the education minister of Mozambique, has served as the chancellor of Cape Town University, works with the UN, and has received WHO’s highest honour for her work supporting the health and well-being of children, women and teenagers.

Addressing the audience about the importance of ushering peace into our world during these troubled times Graça said, “Don’t just feel it’s someone else’s problem to fix, everyone must take responsibility and we shouldn’t leave it up to governments.”

When asked about the many inequalities faced by girls and women in different regions and different situations, often having to face the brunt of displacement from climate change, violence and conflict, and what Rotarians could do to help in empowering women, she said responsibility was the key word here. “Take on responsibility; many people here are in positions of influence and authority. Take that power and leverage it for the good and well-being of women. Pay women the same salaries, be sensitive to their unique contributions. Education, education, education! Educate girls!”

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