- An uncomfortable truth: the gender turf war at UN CSW
- The price of peace
- Defining the new American gender agenda
- A retrospective: 15 years later, Beijing’s mandate yet unfinished
- The table around which we didn't sit
- Overdue justice
- Enter NGO
- A reception with Harriet
- Becoming a feminist
- New York: no place for women in action
- Disillusionment, Anger and Protest
- The mother of all widows
- Widowhood: invisible for how much longer?
Jane Esuantsiwa Goldsmith
Parvin Ardalan spoke to Jane Gabriel at the UN CSW about the link between a conversation with her father and her work fighting for the rights and freedom of both men and women in Iran, and why it's time the international community changed the question: how can we help?
Jane: When you won the Olof Palme prize in 2005 it was "for making the equal rights of men and women central to the struggle for democracy in Iran". To what extent has the green movement taken on board your demands for equal rights?
Parvin: Women in Iran started asking for their rights a hundred years ago, first for the right to education, then to be part of the parliament, and then the right to reform civil Family Law and then for the right to vote. After the 1979 revolution we lost some of the rights that we had achieved- such as the right of Muslim women not to cover; and they had made polygamy much harder before the revolution and it got much easier again. The laws were religious, the government was religious, the power was religious. We either had to accept that all of these things were happening under the umbrella of Islam, or we had to put effort into changing our situation. And so once again we started fighting for these rights.
The session on Sexual and Reproductive Health rights in Africa, held by the Amanitare Sexual Rights Network opened with the blunt observation by Dr Lesley Ann Foster, director of masimanyane, that just as violence against women is global, so too is the failure of every government in the world to met their obligations in international, national and regional law to protect women. For all the advances in our understanding of the problem she said “what we cannot claim, is that we have changed the culture of impunity."
So what have we understood? Gudrun Jonsdottir from Stigamot in Iceland, spoke of how international surveys focus on the women who are raped – measuring their guilt, their feelings of shame, the different ways in which they are blamed for the fact they are raped. Where, she asked, are the surveys measuring the perpetrators guilt? 85% of the women who make it to the Stigmont shelter do not report the rape because they feel ashamed, 75% because they think it was somehow their fault. The Icelandic government ran an anti-alcohol campaign telling women they would be less likely to be raped if they did not drink. The real connection? Two thirds of men who rape do so while they are drunk.
It’s the paradox of the global women’s movement: we disapprovingly wonder aloud where all the men are when we convene to discuss so-called “women’s” issues (this year’s session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women has seen the female population of First Avenue and East 45th Street balloon by about 8,000 and the male population remain relatively constant), but then we bristle when the boys show up and want a turn at the microphone. This uncomfortable truth has been brought a little too clearly into the spotlight this week, where the agenda has been somewhat surprisingly full of sessions exploring the concept of engaging men on women’s issues—I’ve counted at least four.
At least within the international development community, this is an increasingly familiar—and popular—idea. In the work we do at Women for Women International, for instance, we are primarily concerned with the delivery of services to women survivors of war to help them rebuild their lives after conflict. But we have also piloted a men’s program in four of our chapters—Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—to engage male leaders as allies and advocates for women’s rights and value to the economy and society.
As an individual working specifically on issues affecting women survivors of war, I was excited to see on the CSW agenda a UN-sponsored session on “The Price of Peace: Financing Gender Equality in Post-Conflict Recovery and Reconstruction,” hosted by UNIFEM and the United Nations Development Program, UNDP.
Introducing the panel, Winnie Byanyima, Director of the Gender Team for UNDP’s Bureau for Development Policy, referenced the progress that had been made in recognizing women’s unique experience of conflict and post-conflict. She cited landmark international accords that recognize gender as a security issue (UN Security Council Resolutions 1325, 1820, 1888 and 1889) as evidence of this. Significantly, these resolutions recognize that women shoulder the greatest burdens in war and must be protected; that they contribute enormously to peace building and recovery efforts and must be included in those processes; and that sexual violence and rape as a tool of war is a particularly destructive and common feature of war that must be prevented, combated and prosecuted. Yet, she acknowledged, we have far to go.
over the last year we’ve watched as the Obama Administration built an entirely new gender architecture, from its creation of a White House Council on Women and Girls, to the endowment of Melanne Verveer as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues and the physical and symbolic relocation of the State Department office dealing with those issues from a satellite building to headquarters. We even have a new Congressional subcommittee in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to address, among other things, gender. At a briefing to the US delegation Verveer called this work an unprecedented manifestation of an emerging philosophy that the status of women and girls is “critical to the conduct of our foreign policy. Our efforts for security, the environment, the economy and governance cannot succeed without women fully participating.
Tremendous! The prayers of civil society have been answered. The pleas and prods of feminist activists have been heard. A global superpower has moved to mainstream women into its efforts to support human rights, development and good governance in the world, both at home and abroad. So, what’s next? What legacy will be born in the house Barack built? I went to the 54th U.N. Commission on the Status of Women hoping to find out.
Fifteen years ago in Beijing, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton made an instantly iconic cry for women’s rights: “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.” On that day, those words evoked a seven minute standing ovation; they have inspired more than a decade of homage to this one.
Yet these were not the only words uttered in that important speech; nor indeed, I posit, were they the most important. Clinton also pointed to a number of statistics that characterized the status of women at that time, 70% of the world’s poor are women among them. Fifteen years later, as the 54th CSW opens to review progress in implementing the benchmarks to equality that were set out at that conference, we are haunted by the fact that despite 15 years of conventions, resolutions and conferences, this statistic is unchanged. Our work is far from over.
The CSW this year, as in previous years, has no shortage of discussion. There is enough going on every single day – main sessions, side sessions, caucuses, learning events, strategy meetings – that a 12 hour day is not unusual for NGO delegates. But in my experience at least half of these conversations, and I think that might be generous, are periphery to the conversations that those in power are having. I’ve felt quite negative thinking that in the past. Because there is much that is very positive about the CSW and similar feminist takeovers of mainstream spaces. I wouldn’t want to lose that. But I have been wondering what impact it’s having, especially in light of the ongoing NGO frustrations and negotiations with the official delegations and procedures.
This question of what the powerful are doing and how feminists are influencing them came up concretely in both of the sessions on the financial crisis (pdf) I attended yesterday.
UNIFEM’s next flagship Progress of the World’s Women report, to be published later this year, will be on Access to Justice. Yesterday I went to their session (pdf) on the topic to hear about the issues.
Laura Turquet, manager of Progress, introduced the topic by outlining the three themes the report hopes to cover: impunity, plural legal systems and transforming legal systems. As she explained, ‘impunity means that individuals and organizations are, on a systemic level, “getting away with it”.’ Plural legal systems refers to the reality that in most, if not all, countries, there is ‘more than one legal system in operation’, such as customary versus civil law for example. Transforming legal systems is about recognizing that while women need to be able to access justice systems, by making them more affordable for example, justice systems themselves also need to be reformed to better meet women’s needs.
This morning NGOs found out that not only would there not be an outcome document from this year's CSW, but the political declaration that would be serving as the official output from the conference was already agreed.
Just ten minutes before the declaration was due to be tabled and approved, UK NGOs received hard copies of the text. It totals less than two pages and is as general as it is brief.
According to the document, the text has been in circulation since late February. Yet even the official NGO Committee on the CSW didn't have copies of the document before today. It fell to an NGO from Austria to share the information.
Most of the UK NGO represenatives I've spoken to are unhappy with the text, not because there is anything in it that is a problem, but because there isn't much to it at all. Having received it late and almost after the fact, it is even more disppointing for them to have found that it is so weak on content.
Last night I went to a reception hosted by the Minister for Women Harriet Harman at the residence of the UK’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN. It is the first time the Minister has been to CSW and after a weekend of bilateral meetings and high level sessions she was frank about how overwhelming she was finding the whole process, calling it ‘baffling’.
Most of the UK NGOs in the room at the reception appeared to be equally confused. Even those that had attended the two day NGO forum over the course of Saturday and Sunday were unsure about some of the most basic elements of the upcoming week’s conference. For example, nobody seemed to yet know whether there would be what is known as an ‘outcome document’ – a kind of call to action for states – or whether there would be a milder ‘declaration’ – restating states’ commitment to the agenda. (More information has since been released, which we will cover in future posts.)
It's 15 years since Beijing. Almost half my life time ago. At the time of the 4th world conference, I was still quite young. I felt aware of sexism, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what I felt, or the analysis to explain to others what I thought wasn’t right.
This began to change just a year later once I was in high school, navigating my way through adolescence and all the trauma and adventure that come with that period as a young woman. I can’t say it was entirely fun; my high school, though more liberal than some, was quite anti-woman in its own way. To this day, I think of my own personal relationship with high school being quite tightly bound to my emergence as an ever-more vocal feminist and activist.
I honestly can’t remember a time when I didn't think of myself as a feminist. I don’t think I even had a ‘click moment’. But I do remember being conscious of my opinions about sexism and feminism becoming firmer and more pronounced as I passed through my six years in secondary school.
In an open letter to the United Nations Secretary General, the European Women's Lobby declares that "The 54th Session of the CSW...represents a step backwards by its failure to offer a new vision and mechanisms for implementation".
This is my last blog and my last visit to the CSW. Truly, hand on heart this time, given all the frustration and the chaos, not to speak of the thousands of pounds and time and effort I have spent just to get here with prepared background papers in order to get “widows” mentioned in the final documents – the so-called Agreed Conclusions, I learnt only in recent days there were never to be any “Agreed Conclusions”. There is simply a Declaration. Why on earth were we, the NGO women, not told this months ago? It feels like betrayal - and even deceit.
At this Tuesday morning’s NGO consultation we women from the NGOs, attempting to participate in the 54th CSW, finally collectively erupted, en masse.
These meetings will take place every day for the duration of the Session at the New York Salvation Army building, several blocks away from the UN because there is “no room at the Inn”, that is, the UN building, where in previous years we always met. Is there some dark conspiracy that facilitates the process of making us women feel so unwelcome, so redundant, and so belittled?
Throughout the day, wherever and whenever one met women queuing, exhausted, harassed, and often livid with frustration – women who had spent vast sums of money from scarce resources just to get here – the anger, nay hot fury, was evident. It was scandalous that we women should be so treated by the UN, so badly served by them, so disregarded.
So yesterday CSW formally opened and we NGOs, thousands of us,queue, crowd, jostle to get a seat either in the gallery of Conference Room A where the delegates are or to watch on the big screen the proceedings from Conference Room B. Although we are there by 9 am nothing gets going until after 10. Delegates are warned that colour blindness will not be accepted as an excuse if they ignore the orange light which tells them they have 30 seconds to stop speaking. Speakers for a group of countries have 10 minutes; mere single nations only 5.
We watch and listen as the top people in the UN such as the head of ECOSOC, UNIFEM, the Egyptian Chair of CEDAW; the dignified lovely UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Megiro followed by Rachel Mayanja, Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues to the SG do their stuff. All speaking passionately about gender equality and the empowerment of women; the gains and progress made in the 15 years since Beijing. The DSG spoke optimistically of the hopes she had that the new Gender Entity, the UN Department for Women, will get its legs by September and there will be far more effective work in the field driven by top level policy making at headquarters. The presentations were elegant and predictable and each speaker was applauded but many of us were anxious to get going on our own business, rushing back across the road to the Church Centre or wherever else the NGOs had found near the UN building to hold their own meetings.
Fifteen years ago I hopped on the plane to Beijing, heady with excitement, huge optimism and high expectations that finally we, the women’s NGOs of the world, had arrived!
Governments were at last listening to us. Unlike the previous world conferences on women in Mexico, Copenhagen and Nairobi.
In spite of the mud, the rain, the wet and the cramped discomfort of our accommodation in Huarou where we NGOs were located – far from the government delegations in the capital – our voices, our ideas, our knowledge and experiences were going to be taken seriously by the official delegations. And they were. The resultant great document to emerge from the Fourth World Conference for Women, the BPfA was going to dominate and map our strategies and work effectively to upgrade the status of women in every aspect of their lives, as described in the 12 Action Areas of the Platform, to the present day. And every year subsequent to that September conference, at the UN CSW we would be here in New York to, we imagined, work in close consultation with our governments to monitor and evaluate progress on implementation of the BPFA, identify gaps and emerging issues.
There are lots excuses for a big party this week – International Women’s Day; 15 years since the UN Beijing Platform for Action, and 40 years since the beginning of the “second wave” women’s movement in the 70’s. We all seem to be on a nostalgia kick, including me.
I became a fully paid up feminist for life when I joined the women’s lib consciousness-raising group in 1972 in my first year at university. At only 19 years old, I proposed a motion to the student’s union at Leicester University: “This house is against sexism.” Sexism was a new word at the time, imported from America. 1,000 students heard the word “sex” and crammed into the Students Union hall just to find out what it meant - including the Student Rugby club who had incensed us feminists by holding a “grapple and strip show” for rag week. Things looked rough at the Student union meeting; I have faced some tough audiences in my time, but that was the biggest and the scariest. I was surprised to get a standing ovation at the end of my speech, just for saying aloud the new word for what society has been doing to women from time immemorial.
But we’ve come a long way since then, haven’t we?