I want to write about the 59th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), but I am terribly under-qualified. (When friends ask what I do when I go to the United Nations each March, I say: I’m just a CSW groupie.)
Still, I get to wear one of those official badges with my photo, so I feel pretty cool.
I love the UN. The flags themselves thrill me.
My first visit was in the 7th grade. It was like a candy store of all things international–my version of Disney World.
A colleague of mine, who IS qualified to write about CSW, actually worked at the United Nations, said the flags always gave her chills. “I work here!” she’d say to herself, every day, for three years.
I wish I wanted to work there. It was my grandmother Lila’s dream. She studied French and Chinese at Rutgers in the early forties just before the UN was chartered; but motherhood and marriage interrupted her ambitions.
My colleague Jennifer IS a mother and a wife, and they even has a puppy. Times have changed. May they keep on changing!
That’s what I love about CSW–thousands of WOMEN from every part of the globe.
This year, I found myself particularly wowed by women officials.
They’ve pursued years of education, contributed to hundreds of meetings, poured over thousands of documents…
I have so much gratitude.
Take the Minister for Gender Equality from Poland. (And note her awesome hair!)
I scribbled pages of notes from her presentation, but what I remember most is how she emphasized that there are three parts to ensuring gender equality:
Suddenly, I understood where I fit in: Consciousness!
(I’m not just a groupie after all!)
Now is as good as a time as any to say that everyone at CSW is speaking ENGLISH:
-Professor Fusazara of Poland.
-All the members of the Permanent Mission of Japan–who co-hosted this side event.
-And all those women–from around the globe–who addressed this panel with probing questions–some of which I couldn’t follow–in my native tongue.
There are dozens of meetings, events, talks, briefings, presentations and panels happening at the same time–morning, noon & night–during the two week stretch of the Commission on the Status of Women–with representatives from Member States , UN entities, and ECOSOC-accredited non-governmental organizations (NGOs)–from all regions of the world.
There are men at CSW too, but they are a striking minority. My 19 year old was among them. Lloyd volunteered last fall with international NGO that I represent here (Federation EIL–the worldwide network of the Experiment in International Living); and particularly given his studies in development, he was eager to accompany me.
We attended the NGO opening reception together–which is even more female-dominated than the CSW meetings at the UN.) Another man was quickly drawn to Lloyd’s side as we waited in line. Rana was from Bangladesh and he went out of his way to compliment me for something I hadn’t considered before:
“Business men bring their sons when they do business,” he said. “Those in development need to bring their sons too. Well done.”
Neither Rana or I had daughters, but we both had work that we referred to in the feminine. Rana came to CSW on behalf of his “daughter”–Udbastu–an NGO he formed to protect the environment of his homeland.
“Udbastu means refuge in Sanskrit,” he explained.
Rana’s passion helped bring mine into clearer focus: I came to CSW for my grandmother, Lila, and for her namesake, my work–the divine lila–the play of consciousness.
Play was a theme I heard echoed again and again at CSW, which was surprising, given the serious nature of activism and advocacy.
“Your commitment is sustained when it comes from the heart and when you make it fun,” said Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen at her side event: The Indomitable Spirit in Activists and the Archetype of Artemis.
My son teased me about the events I chose to attend during our time at the UN. My choices were based on “feel” and “sense”–a favorite country, a cool angle, a rare connection; while his were shaped around region, policy and planning.
Another event that caught my eye was: Cool Feminism–Exploring Ideas from the North, hosted by the country of Iceland.
The women of Iceland certainly know how to have fun with their activism. When their protest against the Champagne Clubs (that popped around Reykjavík after the 2010 law prohibiting strip clubs) was met by silence from the media and city officials, they got creative.
“We didn’t just whine around the kitchen table,” said Guðrún Jónsdóttir, Founder of Stígamót, a woman’s right organization. “Stígamót opened its own Champagne Club, as a parody.”
They sent invitations to the mayor, to the police commissioner, the ministers, members of parliament, city counselors, and the media.
82 year old Jónsdóttir acted as the club owner and offered to dance. Others offered to sing, tell stories about rape, read the Declaration of Human Rights, and even teach customers how to knit.
Shortly afterward, the Champagne Clubs were shut down and criminal prosecutions ensued.
In her presentation, The Indomitable Spirit in Activists, Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen focused on this capacity that women have–how it grows–over time–and how women learn–from each other. She highlighted the difference between the male and female brain–how women have more connective fibers between the left (analytical) and the right (creative) hemispheres.
‘When the masculine is the only one holding power,” she said, “There can be a lack of empathy and imagination.”
Nobel Peace Prize winner, Leymah Gbowee, spoke to this imbalance when she addressed the the rally at the March for Gender Equality at the opening of CSW on International Women’s Day:
Right now the world is functioning like a person trying to see the whole picture with one eye covered. That person is bound to miss some very important details.
Up until this time, I often viewed feminism through the lens of fairness and relational politics so I was a little taken aback when I heard Gertrud Åström, President of the Swedish Women’s Lobby, at the Cool Feminism event, say:
Sharing housework is a feminist issue.
But then I got it.
When women’s voices are kept from the conversation–political, corporate, cultural–there are serious human rights ramifications.
Suddenly, issues like equal pay, domestic violence and female leadership came into sharper focus for me–as global and moral imperatives.
Even in a place like Iceland, where gender equality tops the charts, there are outrageous gaps in rights that eclipse the voice of the feminine.
These gaps were brought into stark relief by the speakers at a CSW evening celebration at the Manhattan Center. The Hammerstein Ballroom was packed–floor to ceiling–with representatives, dignitaries and delegates from NGOS around the world.
The beloved UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, addressed the audience of 2,000, followed by UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka; and soon after, the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson.
Former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, then took the stage, crediting Johnson’s leadership for stemming the tide of the Ebola epidemic in her country, and then shared information from the Clinton Foundation initiative, Not There Yet—a data driven analysis of gender equality.
Clinton was followed by actress Meghan Markel, the UN Women’s Advocate for Women’s Leadership & Political Participation.
The statistics Meghan shared silenced the room:
At the current rate, the elimination of gender INequality will not be possible until 2095. And when it comes to women’s political participation and leadership – the percentage of female parliamentarians globally has only increased by 11% since 1995. 11 percent in 20 years.
But it was Markel’s personal story of how she “accidentally” became a women’s advocate–at the age of 11–that revealed a deeper truth about gender inequality to me.
There in the balcony, I found myself inexplicably brought to tears when she shared a tagline from a nineties television commercial:
Women all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans.
Markel drove home a bias that was punctuated at CSW: Gender inequality is often dismissed as a cultural issue, while in fact it is form of deep discrimination.
“Women make up more than half of the world’s population and potential so it is neither just nor practical for their voices, for OUR voices, to go unheard at the highest levels of decision-making,” said Markel. “Women need a seat at the table, they need an invitation to be seated there, and in some cases, where this is not available, they need to create their own table.”
1100 organizations and 11,000 individuals participated in the 59th Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations this month, on behalf of the 7+ billion women, men and children–around the world.
I was honored to take a seat among them.
(Click here for more on CSW59 from the UN Women.)