One of the first tasks of The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)—founded in 1946—was to challenge the wording of large multinational documents. The commission contributed to the phrasing of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, replacing words like “man” and “mankind” with less gendered, more inclusive language. In the decades since, the commission has evolved into a massive annual two-week event, bringing in thousands of attendees from all over the world. Language is still a discussion point in the twenty-first century, but the commission is now an opportunity to hear from gender and human rights activists working at the grassroots levels, leading social movements, and challenging patriarchal structures around the world.
Each commission has one priority theme and one review theme. The priority theme for the sixty-second session, or CSW62, held this past March, was “Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls.” The review theme addressed women’s access to and use of media, and how communication technology can be used as an instrument for advancing women’s empowerment. Not surprisingly, these themes provided ample space for conversations on a wide range of topics. While the formal commission held at the United Nations Headquarters follows a broad agenda, each two-week session also includes hundreds of UN-affiliated side events and civil society run parallel events. These tend to be more intimate and focused.
I was drawn to the openness and particularity of the parallel events and spent most of the two-week commission perfecting my New Yorker fast-walk as I tried to attend as many as possible. I selected several that applied directly to the work I do with MCC, such as “The Role of Rural Women in Climate Change Resilience,” hosted by the Tzu Chi Foundation, as well as ones that are particularly relevant right now, like “Women/Girls and the Media: Storytelling and #MeToo,” hosted by The Representation Project.
I learned so much at CSW62, not just about individual topics, but also about how hard women around the world are working to support their fellow women and their communities. None of the issues addressed were new. Even those that the news has fixated on recently because celebrities are involved, or those that are discredited for being “trendy” always turn out to have deep roots in racist, patriarchal customs. What did seem groundbreaking was the validation that each topic received. Panels of deeply dedicated women from around the world offered their hard-earned expertise, dissecting how environmental regulations in the United States affect small island nations like Kiribati, or how #MeToo is so much more than a trend. CSW provided space for people of all ages in (seemingly) niche fields to learn from each other and collaborate.
Our office was honored to welcome two members of MCC’s International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP) to CSW62. Zury Lemus Vega is from Honduras and is working in the language department at Eastern Mennonite University. Sithandweyinkosi Mpofu, originally from Zimbabwe, is a law graduate and currently working at Saint Francis Migration Ministries in Wichita, Kansas. Here are their reflections:
Zury Lemas Vega
Being able to be part of innumerable events during the first five days of CSW62 was an experience I will never forget.
For me it was shocking to see how women around the world continue to struggle to achieve gender equity. The voices of many have been repressed, but it is amazing to see how many more seek to liberate those who are oppressed. What surprises me the most is that despite the years that we, as women, have struggled to make our voices heard, we are still immersed in a world where “machismo” and gender inequality continue to triumph. It is a pity that our gender determines, in the eyes of many, the rights, virtues and opportunities that we have. God made us equal, but the world differentiated us.
One of the events that most affected me was an event about the #MeToo Movement where many women had the courage to share how they were sexually abused and trafficked. Many suffered for longer than others did, many had disastrous experiences, but they remain strong and continue to fight to help many other women get out of that way. “#MeToo encloses sex traffic, but it is not just sex traffic, it involves all kind of gender humiliation,” said one of the speakers. It is not just sex trafficking or prostitution; domestic violence, harassment, and racism are also enclosed in this.
I had not been aware of the many problems that still exist in the world regarding gender inequality. CSW62 helped me to understand that:
We live in a world where we must continue to raise our voices every day, hoping that one day we will destroy gender differences, and we will be able to live in equality, as God created us.
Despite what the world says or does, we will continue to fight for women and men who suffer gender violence, because we all have the same human rights, and as a society, we must respect that.
Being able to attend the Commission on the Status of Women was not just an amazing opportunity but also enlightening. There was so much exposure for me to a lot of issues that I had no idea were being addressed or even existed. Being around so many women fighting for one cause was beyond great. I learnt so much from the different presentations and even though I was only able to attend a few, I still left with a mindset beyond different from when I went there, and I can confidently declare that after the CSW 2018, I am now aware!
CSW62 raised a lot of questions in my mind. How much do you know about a situation? So often we have sidelined or taken things for granted, either because we have not had first-hand experience with them, or we have no knowledge of them entirely. We sometimes look at situations and subjectively decide that they are not as important, or we hear about them and, without realizing it our minds, dismiss them. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is a question for another day, but how much do we really know? How aware are we regarding things happening to our neighbors, friends, family or the countries around us? It took me just a week at the Commission on the Status of Women conference to realize all the things happening that I had no idea of, the things I unconsciously dismissed in my mind even though I had some knowledge on them.
Within the space of a week I saw women and men fight for their causes. Through different presentations I saw them fight against child marriage, violence against women and girls, and sexual abuse and harassment. I saw them fight for girls’ education, gender equality, fair opportunities for youth, and a healthy future for women and girls in rural areas. Various organizations in different countries showed how they were dealing with different issues. Knowledge and ideas were shared, and how amazing it was to be part of it. Below is a summary of some of the sessions that I attended.
1. It was amazing to learn how Kenya, after their 2010 Constitution, now has three female governors. Talk about women doing it! When Governor Kirinyaga was giving her presentation she said:
“Women must be prepared for battle in fighting the status quo. Change will not be accepted lightly.”
As a result of the 2010 Constitution she listed the protective clauses promoting equal rights:
- National Gender and Equality Commission
- Vision 2030
- Prevention against Gender Violence Act
- National Youth Act
In line with Vision 2030, some of the ideas which are being implemented were laid out. Kenya is looking to develop its agricultural, health and infrastructure sectors. They are in the process of upgrading hospitals and factories for infrastructure development working with women and the youth. More jobs have been opened for women and as well as for people with disabilities.
2. Canada held a session entitled “Under the spotlight: Ending violence against all women and girls.” It was amazing and heartbreaking to hear stories of what other women have gone through in life. You really believe it cannot get any worse than your own life story until you hear someone else’s. The delegates in this session spoke about how gender violence can no longer thrive in the darkness, unheard and unspoken of. We need to acknowledge those who have spoken up and started the revolution.
Violence against women is something that must end for us and for the future generations to come and no woman must be left behind.
The speaker highlighted that we need to share the initiative and act on it. There has to be education for women as to their rights. We must be agents against violence so that others can know the effects of violence, including those participating in it. It should be understood that violence against women is a crime. It should not be normalized. One statement I held dear to me from this session was that it does not matter if you are a victim or not, the pain is the same, because we are all women.
3. My favorite session was on Youth, Gender and Equality. This was presented by UK and Denmark. Karen Ellemann, Minister for Equal Opportunities in Denmark, touched on equal rights and opportunities. She talked about the limitation of equal rights for boys and girls, and the side effects of stereotyping. We live our lives based on what the society tells us to be, and how to be. There are so many stereotypes these days based on what is deemed normal or not by society. It starts from what sports you can or cannot play and can lead to what professions you are encouraged to enter, or how you are told to dress. There is so much judgment on what you can do because of the expectation of what we think you must do. Rigid gender inequality leads to unequal power and abuse of women and girls. There is now largely the influence of social media on how gender is viewed. Such platforms mostly show women as objects of sexuality and desire.
Many times when you go against expectations, the backlash is hate speech, especially on social media. This led the speakers to address the influences of social media on youth. Karen asked us to consider these questions.
- How do we find balance between the fantastic possibilities that the media shows us with the negative images that it also provides?
- How do we ensure that society offers online and offline platforms where youth can express themselves without fear of discrimination against gender, color or race?
Liam Hackett, Founder of pro-equality and anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label (UK), spoke further about on the importance of identity to young women. According to his statistics, 47% of youths want to change how they look. This has resulted in lowered self-esteem due to the pressure to succumb to society’s ideas of gender. Most youths are now facing challenges regarding their physical appearance because they have lost their identities and now live by the standards of who they think they ought to be. Youths now end up succumbing to the expectations of society and social media. Boys are taught not to be vulnerable for example, because society deems it as a sign of weakness. They face pressure to be masculine, and along the way they lose themselves. There is so much to be said on identity, and so much to be done to achieve equality. Throughout the process, youths need the constant reminder that no matter the situation or challenge, you must stay true to yourself!
The Commission on the Status of Women is an opportunity to join global conversations about women’s power and achievements, as well as the confinement that all genders experience in their societies, religions, industries, and families. The MCC UN Office encourages women to join us next year at CSW63, which will address women’s access to social protection, public services, and safe infrastructure.