What happened at the annual United Nations women’s conference this year? Over 10 days of both mercifully brief and far-too-long speeches by policy people, government ministers, UN staff members and a wide array of other experts, the 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women ended on a hush. It was as if everyone involved was far too fatigued to pronounce further on the quest to upset the status quo of a world that is predominately ruled by men.
The long slog for gender equality, for winning women’s full and incontrovertible rights and snuffing out gender discrimination, pervaded deliberations and discussions, given that the official theme was closing the gap on the current Millennium Development Goals (MDG) for women and girls and writing a new set for the post-2015 era. It is a critical time for shaping an ambitious agenda for empowering women and girls while finishing up the work at hand, speakers messaged over and over to audiences, made up mostly of women — who hardly need reminders of what must be done.
Despite the 2015 MDG deadline, the conference, which featured dozens of events at the UN and off campus, lacked a strong sense of excitement if not urgency, leaving it a pale comparison to last year’s conference, which centered on ending violence against women.
This year, however, the recurring recommendation for the next MDGs was that a stand-alone goal on gender equality must be included and that a major benefit of the current MDGs, despite some of their worst failures, was to draw attention to the plight of women around the world. Organizations from all over the globe have injected their say on the future MDGs, including such stalwarts as the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, but what the goals will actually look like come January 2016 remains up for debate. The final document from this year’s conference reiterates the need for a stand-alone goal that promotes the human rights of women and girls.
Last year, Michelle Bachelet was the head of UN Women, and on the final day of the women’s conference, she announced her sudden, though half-expected, departure from the UN so she could officially run for president in her home country of Chile. (Bachelet, 62, won in November and began office in March.) At the UN, she had attracted adoring crowds of all nationalities and ages in the hallways and meeting rooms.
Bachelet’s replacement, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, 58, of South Africa, is still warming up to her job, which she started in August. She is a far less vehement speaker than Bachelet for now, looking fixedly at her audience, yet she stands clear on the side of women’s rights.
At a press briefing opening the conference, held March 10-21, Mlambo-Ngucka remarked, “Don’t ask me any difficult questions,” as she proceeded to reiterate the achievements for women, even if the gains have played out unevenly, and sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are still the sorest places on earth to live.
The list of wins is impressive: more women parliamentarians, more girls in school, fewer women dying in childbirth and more gender-diverse workplaces and women in the labor force.
What’s important in measuring gender equality, Mlambo-Ngucka added, are gender-disaggregated data that can hone in on the outstanding problems, a theme that Bachelet emphasized when she ran UN Women and that is far from resolved. Others are focusing on data collection as well: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation are teaming up to improve data gathering and analysis on women and girls in the economic, social, political and cultural spheres around the world.
“Data shows there are solutions,” Mlambo-Ngucka said.
The list of deficits for women appears to be much longer than the roster of achievements, women’s advocates repeated at the UN conference: women face incredibly high rates of violence by men, despite all the treaties and laws enshrining women’s rights; and financing programs for promoting gender equality and women’s roles in peace talks, from the policy-making rungs to the grass-roots bases, are shockingly low or the money never lands in the right hands because of corruption.
Too many women remain dirt poor or cope with the ravages of conflict in their community, country or home; women are consistently underpaid for their work or not paid at all; in many countries, they can’t own land, sign legal documents or open bank accounts, reminders of their second-class citizenship. Older women are subject to abuse as much as younger women. Pubescent and prepubescent girls are forced into marriages or have their genitalia cut, even at infancy; more women are contracting HIV/AIDS; unsafe abortions are prevalent in certain countries and regions. The majority of people who are “trafficked” worldwide are women and girls.
The MDGs never touched the world’s poorest people, and 70 percent of that population is — once again — women and girls, Ursula Schaefer-Preuss, a German development expert and economist who is the chairwoman of the Global Water Partnership, said at the UN conference.
Mlambo-Ngcuka noted the ominous undertow that continues to threaten progress for women: male religious leaders — in Muslim and Christian orders alike — preventing women from winning their equal places in society and enjoying their legal rights.
What could advance the women’s movement in this regard, she said, is voices of progressive religious scholars countering the dogma of conservative religious leaders, who use cultural relativism to justify limiting women’s choices, like the ability to use contraceptives and to work outside the home (and in some places, like Afghanistan, to merely step outside the home).
The Holy See, which holds nonmember observer status at the UN — allowing it to participate in General Assembly meetings but not vote on resolutions — has historically voiced its stance on the rights of women, positions often at odds with the majority of desires expressed at the women’s conference this year and in the past.
In this year’s speech on Millennium Development Goal No. 3 (gender equality), delivered on March 17, the Holy See said, in part, that overall global progress on the MDGs on child and maternal deaths and access to sanitation has far to go. But the Holy See refused to acknowledge the demands of women to have control over their own bodies.
“Vis-à-vis these goals, my Delegation underscores the fact that children are the future of humanity and that no mother should ever have to die giving birth to her child,” the Holy See speaker said. “In this regards, it cannot be stressed enough that the way to reduce maternal mortality can never be by taking away the life of another human life, namely, the unborn child nor through the promotion of so-called ‘reproductive rights,’ but through the provision of basic health care, adequate nutrition and competent obstetric care throughout pregnancy, delivery and postpartum.”
Iran invoked the word “family” in its speech at the conference as code for restricting women’s rights, saying that the country’s development plans are “mainly based on promoting health and coherence of family . . . to create a balance between women’s multiple roles and help them enjoy maximum effectiveness and efficiency in both the family and the society.”
Breaking down the legal and socioeconomic structures that block the aspirations of women and girls requires legislation and leadership, many speakers said. The UN conference, however long-winded and plodding, is part of that process, convening officials and other relevant parties from across the globe — South Sudan to Norway; Australia to Pakistan — to share their knowledge of conditions on the ground and to discuss how policies, laws and mores can be changed to improve the lives of women and girls.
Regional, national and local organizations can help stop women from losing their rights, María Cristina Perceval, the Argentine ambassador to the UN, told the audience at an event on violence against women. Perceval, who represents her government as an elected member of the Security Council, read passages from Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” and said that “feminists have a lot of patience but we are not eternals. We need, wish and request legal and real rights in this life, for our life, during our life.”
Education on gender equality in the schools — early on — can help remedy sexist attitudes, Perceval said, adding that Libya has recently taken a huge step forward in agreeing to provide reparations to victims of sexual violence that occurred during the overthrow of the Muammar el-Qaddafi regime.
The UN women’s conference, nicknamed the CSW, has no rival in scope and size internationally. The people who attend return home, renewed to fight on despite minimal money and possible retribution for their work. A final-day forum, on women from South Sudan — a young country that convulsed in fighting in December and is tenuously negotiating a peace accord — brought home the paradox of sitting in warm, comfortable spaces at the UN and talking about women’s rights and the reality back home, where bullets may be flying and some people are surviving in makeshift refugee camps. In those settings, rain drips through the shelter tarps, sanitary hygiene supplies are unavailable, food is scarce and hope fleeting.
Men, the panelists agreed with irony, get to have a role in bargaining the country’s peace treaty because they were the ones involved — if not inciting — the armed conflict to begin with.
And women? They get left out in resolving the country’s bitter differences because they weren’t the ones who engaged in the fighting to start with.
But even humor found its way into the conversation on South Sudan, as Rita Martin, a civil-society organizer, voiced a note of optimism to the audience in the Dag Hammarskjold Library Auditorium at the UN: someday, she said, her country would be a place “where all of you can come for a vacation.”
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.