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US Immigration Ban Stirs Controversy at the Annual UN Women’s Forum


The American actress Anne Hathaway was the main guest at a UN celebration marking International Women’s Day on March 8, 2017. The event preceded the annual women’s conference at the UN, March 13-24. RYAN BROWN/UN WOMEN

Despite fears that efforts by President Trump to bar visitors to the United States from a number of Muslim majority would limit attendance at this year’s annual United Nations conference on women in New York, UN officials have kept saying there will be record participation. On the first day, however, people were more worried about the forecast of a blizzard in the region disrupting events than they were about visa problems. (The UN announced at the end of the day it would close on March 14 because of the storm.)

From March 13 to 24, the 61st Commission on the Status of Women is convening at UN headquarters and environs, offering about 300 side events and drawing thousands of nongovernment organizations. UN Women, as the organizer, has been boasting about the sheer volume of participants and activities while at the same time has been somewhat dismissive regarding problems people might be encountering in attending the event.

One international nongovernmental women’s group in the Netherlands, WO=MEN, is compiling information on women from overseas who were denied visas to attend the UN conference.

Some major organizations have dropped out in sympathy to participants who may not be able to enter the US because of the effect of the two Trump immigration bans, one of which was dropped but may have left lingering results. The new one takes effect March 16 and restricts entry of people from six countries: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The original ban on Iraqis was lifted. But various reports from women’s groups in the US and abroad said they knew of women from other countries, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Peru, who were denied visas to attend the women’s conference.

The theme of the conference is women’s economic gains in the workplace, but given the sizeable number of events, topics have strayed, with many delving into the sad perennial of ending violence against women. That was the theme in 2013, when Michelle Bachelet, now the president of Chile, headed UN Women. The problem has not gone away.

As for economics, on global average, women make 77 cents for every dollar earned by men for work of equal value, according to an International Labor Organization “Women at Work Trends” report. The global gender pay gap is 23 percent, but in some countries the figure is much higher, and it will take 70 years — two generations — to close the gap.

Only 49.6 percent of working-age women are represented in the labor force globally, compared with 76 percent of men. That doesn’t mean many women are lounging around: the issue of unpaid care work will also be debated at the conference.

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Focus on the wage gap kicked off the conference on March 13, with four men speaking at the opening program before Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, as the head of UN Women, could take her turn. Government delegates and civil society representatives — a healthy mix of men and women — from every region showed up for the first talkfest, held in the UN General Assembly Hall, from Chile to Denmark, Italy to United Arab Emirates, Iceland to Kenya, Canada to South Africa.

In the evening, Mlambo-Ngcuka and celebrities, like the American actress Patricia Arquette, planned to mark the global inequity gap with an “equal pay platform of champions” and a hashtag: #StopTheRobbery.

More symbolically, the wage gap will be noted on March 14, when the conference will pause for five minutes at 4:10 p.m. and “there is 23 percent of the workday left,” UN Women said. The blizzard may push that “pause” to March 15.

The conference is also tackling the issue of unpaid care work, as more resources are being used to pay attention to the fact that women and girls still shoulder a large role caring for others in the home and outside it. The conference will emphasize that this unfair burden hurts all of society and not just females, as women take on 2.5 times more unpaid work than men.

How the UN debates will help improve productive employment and decent work for women while eliminating unpaid care work will be closely watched. The aim is to push governments to ensure equal wages and equal societies. These ambitions can be achieved, UN policymakers say, through the world’s sustainable development goals. But the SDGs, as they are known, are voluntary commitments. Paid parental leave, more men sharing care work and affordable childcare would go a long way in getting more women into the workforce. Few countries can say they have such setups.

Iceland, for one, has a plan: its minister of social affairs and gender equality (a man, Thorsteinn Viglundsson) is discussing at the conference a government proposal requiring companies and institutions with more than 25 employees to carry out an equal-pay certification system in Iceland — to literally receive a stamp of approval. It’s being called the Equal Pay Standard, and the hope is that other countries will emulate it.

Opening day of the annual women’s conference, March 13, 2017. RICK BAJORNAS/UN PHOTO

Beyond the conference’s wage-gap theme, a potential logistical problem for participants emerged when the US, the host country for the UN, issued travel bans limiting access to its nation. The first ban, introduced in January, focused on seven fragile states, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen and Iran. While the first ban was rescinded, another ban emerged, to be launched two days into the women’s conference, limiting travel by six of the countries, excluding Iraq. (On the first day of the conference, the delegate seats for Iran and Iraq in the General Assembly were empty.)

Yet UN Women representatives have repeatedly said that the bans have not affected conference plans. At a March 7 media briefing, Lakshmi Puri, deputy executive director of UN Women, estimated that more than 8,600 nongovernmental organizations and individuals would participate and more than a thousand government delegates from around the world were registered to attend.

“As far as visa issues, vis-à-vis civil society participation,” Puri said, “we have not heard of major problems. We’ve spoken to the US mission [to the UN] to facilitate and also they are receiving civil representatives seeking help in case they have difficulties.”

The spokesman for Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, said last week that he was not aware of the US mission working with UN Women on participants’ visa problems.

But as previously reported by PassBlue, some nonprofit groups have withdrawn participation in solidarity with women from countries banned by the US, including the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the oldest women’s peace group in the world.

Following suit, Ruchira Gupta, the founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a group based in India committed to ending sex trafficking, is also not attending. Gupta is a renowned presenter at CSW events and was awarded a Woman of Distinction prize by the NGO Committee on the Status of Women, NY, in 2015.

In addition, Masimanyane Women’s Rights International, the South African partner of the International Women’s Health Coalition, announced the organization was boycotting the conference. The coalition released a statement, saying, in part: “IWHC believes that the Trump Administration’s executive orders display a fundamental disrespect for women, racial justice, equality, religious tolerance, and human rights.” (Notably, Mlambo-Ngcuka of UN Women is South African.)

Madre, a network of women’s groups, announced on March 13 an initiative called No Borders on Gender Justice, made up of women’s, LGBTIQ and immigrant justice organizations. The coalition, which is participating in the women’s conference, said that the new executive order by the Trump administration is the “latest in an exclusionary trend that prevents women from exercising their rights to political participation at UN Headquarters.”

The Dutch nonprofit group WO=MEN is keeping track of women activists who have been unable to come to the conference or who were afraid to come, based on the politics of Trump toward women and Muslims. And the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders had to cancel one of its conference events because its participants from Libya were unable to come.

As an Icelandic visitor to the conference, Bryndis Birgisdottir, said, “I filled out all the paperwork to come here but I never knew if I could get in.”

This article was updated.

Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.

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