Fighting for the very poorest of the poor

Margaret Owen reports with a mixture of anger and hope from the CSW, on the struggle by Widows for Peace through Democracy  to get recognition of the extreme suffering of widows and some action by the UN.
Margaret Owen
13 March 2009

Now in Washington DC, am trying to recover from last week's circus at the UN.. Rethinking surviving that first week of the 53rd session of the UN CSW, I have changed my mind. I am now, for probably the first time in the 11 years since I've been coming to New York, glad I made it there.

Our own event on ROLES AND NEEDS OF WIDOWS as caregivers in context of HIV/AIDS conflict, violence and poverty was good, though we were given the worst "slot", 6 pm in the evening, so none of the UK based NGOs nor the official delegation came as they were all at the UK Mission discussing the GEAR  (Gender Reform in UN architecture, or something like that).

Insanely,  various very high level international luminaries working on gender issues, such as Rachel Mayanja, the Special Adviser to the UN-S-G on gender issues, and the Gender Adviser from the Commonwealth Secretariat (who had originally said they would be there and speaking) were all away in Liberia. Maddeningly, at the very same time that the CSW held its annual session, a high level conference was taking place in Monrovia on women, leadership and political participation in peace building, hosted by President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson.  Couldn't they have chosen another date?

However, we had fantastic panellists from DRC, Uganda, South Africa, Nepal and Nigeria, and India, whose descriptions of the situation of widows brought tears to the eyes of many of those attending. And we came up with some great recommendations. It's time for the UN to commission a special report on widowhood just as it did on children in conflict. It's time for the appointment of a UN Special Rapporteur on this neglected subject and for an international conference. It's time that CEDAW develop a questionnaire to be sent to all member states to provide statistics on the status of widows and it's time to mainstream widowhood issues in all relevant decision making.  What richness of experiences and ideas were presented in these NGO fringe meetings. But how boring, by comparison, were the speeches by governments.

The few occasions I decided to sit through the official proceedings were not only boring but often actually misrepresentative of the situation of women in their countries. The whole CSW experience is stressful, rushed, and chaotic as we NGO women rush from one fringe event to the next - in and out of Church Centre - but looking back it's the contacts made, the new opportunities that open up, the fresh perspectives that appear, and most important, the encouragement and support of certain people - some influential and important in the UN and government, and others, movingly, who come from the real grass-roots realities in villages, barrios, and Refugee IDP camps that inspire us to carry on..

It is a fact that we Brits are particularly favoured, for we, I think uniquely, do have a relationship with both our official UK delegation and with the FCO, through the UK mission to the UN. Sir John Sawer, our ambassador, and his staff listen to us. We are, I think, the only NGO lot that actually meets with the delegation and with our Mission on a daily basis, so we get to know what is going on (if we can understand the complexities of the diplomacy in the "closed negotiating sessions" as government officials debate long into the night whether to exchange a "for example", for an "including", or change a full stop to a semi-colon). We persevere and lobby, propose and argue, and maybe we do in some small away begin to chip away at dyed-in-the-wool attitudes of FCO staff.

On the neglected widowhood issues ( the word "widow" barely ever appears in any of these UN documents, neither in the CEDAW, the BPFA, or the present draft conclusions on the priority theme " Equal Responsibilities for care giving in the context of HIV/AIDS".  

Given the vast uncounted numbers of widows affected by the pandemic in so many ways (stigma as well as poverty) we at WPD have been plugging away to get in an additional paragraph on widowhood into the draft.  Just a few hours ago I heard from our UK Women's National Commission that they were trying, on our behalf, because it looks as if "disabled women" will get in, to join with the references to "the girl child heading households", and possibly "older women".  If they fail to include widowhood, it would be scandalously insulting to the millions of widows who as grandmothers, young mothers, and child widows are caring, although many are sick themselves, with those affected by the virus, and yet because of extreme discrimination and harmful traditional practices, are often left without homes, land, or any rights to inheritance...while expected to raise and educate and feed the next generation.

Yes, one gets angry with the millions spent on this two-week session, as government officials dance upon pinheads, and many of us from the NGOs are often totally confused by the very language and the descriptions of these mystical negotiations that often continue into the small hours, yet seem to have little relevance to the mass of women who should be benefiting from these deliberations. 

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