Are you wondering what happened at that “women’s conference at the United Nations,” as one (male) writer at The New York Times called it? Here is a recap of things to think about from the annual Commission on the Status of Women, held March 9-20, assessing how women’s rights and related gender issues are faring around the world.
Cover me: There might not have been much press coverage of the CSW, as attendees call it, but the media turned out to be a sub rosa topic for many of the main discussions and dozens of side events. At times vilified, all forms of media were under scrutiny. One of the strongest statements was made by Rana Allam, an Egyptian journalist, in an impassioned plea regarding media coverage of women in Arab states (see the video above). The media’s “concerned with what we can wear or whether we are being harassed or not,” said Allam. “Our problems are much bigger than that.”
The actress Geena Davis offered her take on another form of media — Hollywood movies — systematically revealing the inherent bias toward men in the entertainment industry and its lasting negative effects on girls and women in society. “If we add female characters at the rate of the last 20 years,” said Davis, “we will achieve parity in 700 years.”
Practice saying “pʰumziːle m̩lamboᵑǀʱuːk’a.” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, a South African who is the executive director of UN Women, brought the occupants of two conference rooms to their feet during the opening remarks at an event when she introduced Hillary Clinton as “a future president.” During the CSW, the normally laconic Phumzile, as most people refer to her to avoid mangling her surname, made herself heard, both through scheduled remarks and extemporaneous comments. She even got some laughs when she interrupted the American sportswriter Alan Abrahamson as he was saying, “Most leaders of sports federations are male,” with: “Most leaders. Period. That’s why we are here.”
Mind your p’s, Part I: Mlambo-Ngcuka referred, throughout the CSW, to “pillars of patriarchy” that needed to fall. Despite visible, intense efforts at correctness by participants, glimpses of these pillars appeared. Even UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon slipped, with a reference to nemo reside, or “no one left behind.” The phrase is culturally associated with warfare and all-male special forces as “no man left behind.” Keeping the SecGen company, Alejandro Alvarez of the UN Development Program said to a mostly female audience: “It’s so nice to see you all here. When I come to this room, I usually see bureaucrats, diplomats, ties.” It is unlikely that Dina Kawar, Jordan’s ambassador to the UN, and Samantha Power, the US ambassador, often wear ties to meetings.
Mind your p’s, Part II: Protocol is crucial and more complex than an AP calculus exam. Consider the variables: each representative brings unique customary standards for protocol, while the UN’s standards must also be observed. The UN standards are published twice a year and updated weekly, with additional references online via 100s of pages of PDFs. The CSW required extensive preparation, as a UN Women spokeswoman laid out in an email. “The official two-week session was complemented by nearly 200 side events and 400 parallel events. The prep involved not just those undertaken by UN Women and its 80 offices, but also that of UN Missions, Agencies, UN Secretariat and thousands of civil society partners.” It’s not surprising, then, that mixups would happen but only that so few did. Exhaustion may have played into the situation when one ambassador introduced Mlambo-Ngcuka as “Executive Secretary Mlambo-Ngcuka.” Or maybe, he was pulling a Phumzile when using the word “Secretary.”
Beijing+20 may just be Beijing 2.0. During her remarks at the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, Hillary Clinton said that women’s rights were human rights. At the CSW, 20 years later, despite declaring there was no better time to be a woman, Clinton called for the world to recognize that women’s rights were human rights.