LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Danica Jokic and Zerina Islamovic, roommates and best friends at the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, are living proof that barriers can be broken and individuals can give peace a chance.
Jokic, who is Serbian, and Islamovic, a Bosnian, are products of the former Yugloslavia, a war-torn area of Europe that fell victim to territorial conflict, ethnic hatred and violence in the 1990s.
But today, the young college sophomores hold no animosity or grudges against one other. Rather, they consider themselves almost sisters who represent a new generation that wants peace in the world.
"You're not going to gain anything if you hate. I identify myself as a citizen of the world, and I don't see any differences in people. We are all the same," Islamovic told a group of more than 125 women, men, high school and college students who gathered on a sunny Saturday afternoon to celebrate International Women's Day at the Polo Grill & Bar in Lakewood Ranch.
This was the 14th year that women of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds from Manatee and Sarasota counties celebrated International Women's Day, a day of reflection and empowerment, along with their global counterparts.
As in years past, the event, whose theme was "Women Inspiring Change Locally and Globally," was hosted by the Gulf Coast Chapter of the United States National Committee for UN Women, an independent organization dedicated to supporting social, political, and economic equality for women in the United States and around the world.
The varied panel of guest speakers introduced thought-provoking dangers that women fall victim to domestically and internationally. Andrea Morley, prevention educator for the Safe Place and Rape Crisis Center (SPARCC) in Sarasota, says she begins character building at an early age, as early as kindergarten, discussing bullying, sexual assault and rape among young adults.
"I cover the full spectrum of what it all means among all ages," Morley said. "This can be awkward, but it's necessary. Our goal is to make sure our services are as strong as possible and we don't spread ourselves too thin."
Panelist Joyce Raby, a former teacher with the Sarasota County School District, is now a strong advocate for human trafficking victims, many of whom are women lured into sexual trafficking and forced labor. Florida ranks third in the country for human trafficking offenses behind California and New York because of a large immigrant population. Raby helps victims regain their trust and self esteem after experiencing such trauma through an organization called Human Trafficking Awareness Partnerships.
"There are only two safe houses in Florida, one in Sarasota and one in Miami, but much more is needed. I challenge you today to help stop this in Florida and come work with us," Raby urged the group. She said she's also trying to educate law enforcement because many don't really understand that human trafficking is a crime.
Maria Gaffar, president of the Asian Women's Club of Lakewood Ranch, called the panel discussion an eye-opening experience.
"People are brutal who are involved in these businesses, and there is a lot of danger involved. The best we can do is make a donation, help the victims, push for law enforcement, and create awareness."
"The world is not perfect or as peaceful as our surroundings here," UN Women chapter president Sharon Burde said. "We want to be involved in the lives of women everywhere, because when women succeed, their families and their countries succeed, and the world is a better place."
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.