Many of the young women like myself attending the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women as student delegates, representing the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), were totally unprepared for the staunchly conservative nature of the United Nations.
Change happens slowly in international collaborative bodies, and trying to identify positions common to 192 Member States upon which to base legislation is challenging at best. Conversely, universities in America represent some of the most critical and engaging environments anywhere. The conversations being had on campuses nationwide around issues of race and gender are at the forefront of critical analysis and progressive social politics.
The number typically thrown around to describe what working at the U.N. feels like is “10-30” - meaning, on any given issue, the U.N. is approximately 10-30 years behind changes being made elsewhere through efforts of America, NGOs, and various other governments.
I realize that this is an American-centric point of view, and I firmly believe in the work that the U.N. does. But it takes a certain type of person to work within such a structure, hence the field of diplomacy. Those of us with WILPF - representing a younger and more diverse type of delegate – are not diplomats, but we tried to effectively voice our positions.
This was not always easy, even in an environment that was intended to respond to youthful feminist concerns. Second wave feminism was a seminal movement that radically shifted the conversation on sex and gender; yet in today's world, the second wave has become (ironically) it's own form of entrenched privilege, largely benefiting older Caucasian women. There was a high degree of international diversity to our discussion, of course, but here too there were clear blind spots: rural women from the Global South were discussed constantly but entirely absent in person.
Interestingly, sexual orientation was only spoken of in binary terms - 100% male or female, girl or boy - and even gender was rarely discussed with any regard for nuance or complexity. Out of hundreds of events, I can only think of one that explicitly included LGBTQ perspectives. Also surprising for many of us who are at home in secular intellectual environments were the strong religious overtones present. This most likely accounted for the lack of conversation about LGBTQ issues - certain topics were simply off limits, given the conservative and religious nature of many countries represented. Part of the perceived lack of nuance was also likely a functional consideration - in order to get legislation drafted, at some point you have to stop dissecting and just go with the most common denominator. Simplicity is more efficient.
The day I attended the top-tier high level meetings, each Member State was given five minutes to present a short synopsis of the status of women in her respective country. This included recent progress made and improvements still needed, specifically related to this year's theme of women and girl's participation in science and technology.
It was interesting to gauge the situation and priorities of different nations, especially gaining insight into how they perceive themselves instead of relying on the mainstream Western discourse we receive through the media.
As a common thread running throughout, there was a pronounced focus on the challenge of overcoming entrenched patriarchal systems. Many countries, especially those with fragile or over-exploited resources, emphasized attention to sustainable practices. Many speakers were demonstrably excited about the launch of UN Women and affirmed their commitment to the Millennium Development Goals, Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and UN Security Council Resolution 1325 dealing with women, peace and security.
Economic transformation of rural economies is the key to gender mainstreaming efforts. It is imperative that young people and students are involved in ongoing conversations ALL stakeholders must have a voice and a coordinated approach amongst different groups is critical for success.
I'll conclude with a brief explanation of what I’ve come to understand as “access to education” - a fundamental concept for my own research in Human Rights Education. Women have the right TO education, extending beyond statistics to the actual quality of the education provided. They have the right IN education to equalizing the playing field, to choose whatever field or career suits them. And finally, women must experience the right THROUGH education to employment, overcoming centuries of being shortchanged in social currency and financial compensation.
I'll just plan to attend the CSW again in 10-30 years ...
Rebecca Norlander, a PhD student in Saybrook University’s Social Transformation program, is a delegate to the UN Commission on the Status of Women this week. She’s blogging about her experiences.