Delegations from governments all over the globe are here in the Big Apple to present glowing reports of the achievements made in their respective countries to advance women’s human rights. Holding these governments’ proclamations to the fire are civil society groups – NGOs – which have produced shadow reports to reveal the true picture of the gaps remaining in areas such as violence against women, women’s exclusion from decision-making, and lack of reproductive health services to reduce maternal mortality. Across from the UN where the government sessions are taking place, the NGOs are in week two of running continuous panels featuring activists presenting best practices from initiatives meticulously undertaken to improve the lives of over 50% of the world’s population.
This is my third time attending CSW, and as an activist working in a donor organization, CSW offers a critical opportunity to meet activist partners from around the globe all in one place. Given the economic crisis and the crunch in donor funding for civil society groups, I am actually surprised at the large number of activists who have managed to travel here. Private conversations over lunch or in corridors reveal the range of sacrifices people have made to come here, in the hope that the activists collective energy will make a significant difference in their home country. One colleague told me that while standing in a long registration line, she met a woman close to tears, frustrated at the dismissive way she was being treated to obtain a building pass, after having used her savings to pay almost $2,000 for an airline ticket from Kenya. Reflecting on the school fees that would go unpaid and her children’s bleak prospects, the business that would be without capital for a year, or medical needs that would be ignored, she wondered what this whirlwind of a conference would do to change the specific challenges and discriminations women and girls face in her country.
Other colleagues who are championing legal rights, or fighting FGM, or challenging sanctioned social violence against widows, have knocked on more doors than they can count to obtain sponsorship, and they are sharing meager accommodation for these 10-12 days, in the hope that this 15-year review will bring urgency and commitment to the desire to enhance the humanity of women and girls. We are all huddling in conference sessions, sitting in the aisles, spilling out of the doors, in a conversation that will evidently continue way beyond March 10th.
I’ve been in more panels than I can count, squeezed in meetings at breakfast, lunch, teatime and dinner, and taken advantage of this time to have face to face communication and dialogue on a range of issues that hopefully make me more effective in my work in social change philanthropy. Here’s a quick overview of some of the panels I’ve attended so far:
1) the impact of the financial crisis on women’s organizing around the world, where presenters insisted on no more “business as usual” and insisted on women’s participation at the highest levels of economic decision-making;
2) a session on women’s organizing in conflict zones, where activists from Northern Uganda, Liberia and Nepal spoke passionately of how they are rebuilding communities one step at a time and involving ordinary women in social change programs that bring to the fore women’s leadership skills;
3) a session on extension of women’s legal rights, which showcased case studies from countries ranging from Mozambique to Turkey, in the hope that legal reforms could be actively implemented and usher in broad civil and economic rights for women;
4) a caucus on developing government resolutions on HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care, where advocates insisted governments compensate home-based care workers who provide the bulk of palliative care -- a session in which the absence of sexuality education in the US was made grossly evident as an American teenager asked how HIV is spread and why it was spreading so fast in some countries;
5) a session featuring activists from Haiti, insisting that post-earthquake reconstruction efforts not replicate the gender discrimination and inequalities of the past, but instead strike a new path beginning with hiring Haitian women as part of reconstruction initiatives;
6) a panel on implementation of UN resolutions punishing sexual violence in conflict zones, particularly in places such as Burundi, DRC, Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia;
7) a session on the importance of non-formal education, where issues of building girls’ self-esteem, communication skills, conflict-resolution skills and knowledge of reproductive health, could make a difference in girls’ self-development where formal education often fails;
8) a panel on the creation of the new UN agency for women’s empowerment, where proposals included insisting on an annual budget of $1 billion, assuring that the agency is inclusive of the voices and priorities of rural women and the poor, and that female presidents be approached by the women’s rights movement to lobby other world leaders to lend their support to the establishment of the new agency.
A coalition of activists from around the world are also drafting a resolution on a women-centered approach to post-disaster responses which will hopefully be introduced by one of the member states as a model not just for Haiti, but for other potential disaster sites too. For the donors at CSW, it’s also been a chance to meet together to brainstorm on how to make our grant-making more strategic and effective. As women’s rights groups remind us that funding dollars are grossly inadequate at the community level, we must work in a smarter way to channel resources for the initiatives that demonstrate initiative, vision, courage, and positive transformation – while bringing more respect into the relationship between donor and recipient. On day two, week two, of the CSW we hope that governments attending CSW will remember their commitments when they are back in their home countries. After all, any gains for women and girls translate into gains and advancement for the entire population and by extension, the planet.