As women across the world battle systemic harassment and worse abuses for merely being female, the United Nations has opened its annual gathering of women in one of its biggest conferences of the year. This time, the 12-day meeting focuses on the status of rural women, but since it follows closely on the heels of the #MeToo movement and the #TimesUp and #TimeIsNow momentum, that will not be the only subject to come up.
The speeches, debates and conversations for the conference officially began on March 12, amid a jostling General Assembly Hall of male and female delegates from most corners of the earth. The atmosphere evoked a cheerleading rally for a righteous cause: gender equality.
“Sexist attitudes and stereotypes are widespread in governments, the private sector, academia, the arts, science and technology, and even in civil society and international organizations like the United Nations,” the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, spoke on opening day. “Women are pioneering scientists and mathematicians — but they occupy less than 30 per cent of research and development jobs worldwide.
“Women are accomplished artists, writers, musicians and film-makers. But this year, 33 men took home Academy Awards, and 6 women. Women are gifted negotiators and communicators — but at the United Nations, the proportion of women ambassadors hovers around 20 per cent. It is only when we have changed statistics like these that we can truly say: we are in a new era for women and girls.”
Changing statistics could make an enormous difference for women to fully harness their rights, but the emotional levers of power — from security officials to executives to ordinary joes on the street and the men at home — will be wielded to exert their dominance over the other.
“By building equality, we give women a chance to fulfill their potential,” Guterres said. But what if a sector of society — like a president of a rich country — has no incentive to meet the potential of women? What if such a leader wants to achieve the opposite?
The American delegation attending the General Assembly Hall gathering at 10 a.m. on March 12 was missing the ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley. The US, of course, is the largest financial donor to the UN and holds the clout that can influence change for women positively.
Haley had tweeted that she would be “discussing and negotiating” this week the “Council on Status of Women,” among other topics, like Syria. Perhaps Haley meant to say the formal name, the Commission on the Status of Women, as the annual women’s rights conference at the UN is identified.
Haley’s record on promoting women’s rights is negative. She declared, as governor of South Carolina: “No one is a bigger booster of women in public service than me. But I didn’t want to appoint a woman because she was a woman — and I certainly didn’t want a member of my team who thought she had the right to be there because she was a woman. I got some heat for this stand.”
The US delegation to the CSW, as the conference is nicknamed, has provided no details on its participation in the session, other than to say it will be there. The Office of Global Women’s Issues in the State Department remains leaderless under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
It is currently being managed by an acting director, Rahima Kandahari, a State Department senior adviser. No timeline has been set for naming a person to head the post. (It is an Obama-era remnant.) Yet the State Department noted it was “pleased to announce the U.S. Delegation attending the 62nd Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).”
The CSW, it added, is, “the UN’s most important annual meeting on women’s issues. Representatives of the CSW’s 45 member governments, along with officials from other governments and participants from several thousand civil society organizations worldwide, convene to discuss ways to improve women’s lives. The theme of this year’s session is Challenges and Opportunities in Achieving Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Rural Women and Girls.”
The State Department got the name of the CSW right. It added that Haley would head the delegation. Ambassador Kelley E. Currie, the US representative to the UN Economic and Social Council, would be the deputy head. She was at the morning speeches in the General Assembly on March 12.
Other members of the US delegation, the announcement read, “include senior officials and technical experts from the Department of State, the Department of Labor, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the United States Agency for International Development.”
For more information, it directed readers to a link at UN Women, the sponsor of the conference, but the page was dead.
The lineup of events for the CSW showed no reference to US participation. After more questions were sent to the State Department regarding nongovernmental groups participating in the US delegation, the response was: “There will be no public delegates to the US delegation to the CSW this year. I refer you to the White House for more information. Any decision on public delegates is determined by the White House.”
Last year, the US delegation to the CSW featured the politically conservative group, the Heritage Foundation, and C-FAM (the Center for Family Rights), a Catholic fundamentalist operation. The organizations’ presence at the CSW had provoked anger — and rage — among many attendees at the UN and across the street at the US mission to the UN, including shouting matches at the latter, as the two groups espoused regressive views on women’s rights.
Few people in the world need to be reminded of President Trump’s positions on the status of women, despite his defense that he thinks the world of them. His record, like recently proposing to slash the US budget for global women’s health, reveals a deeply conflicted person at the wheel of US policies on gender equality.
The US role in the CSW could be crucial for drawing the world closer to attaining equal rights for women, yet the UN has 192 other member states, and their collective bargaining power could galvanize the will of societies in the right direction. But even the UN’s own record on sexual harassment and other sexual abuse is seriously blemished. Guterres inherited the problem and has put a range of new policies in place, including a sexual harassment helpline.
One woman who used it found it more than frustrating, relaying her experience with PassBlue. “I began my story, then heard a series of clicks and then she [the woman answering the helpline] hung up. I tried to call back but no one answered the phone. I followed up with an email with no reply.”
At the CSW, sexual harassment will invariably be integral to discussions at the 280 side events and 440 parallel events that are scheduled through March 23. The topics include widowhood, women in leadership, women and water, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian women, the “shrinking space for the feminist movement,” women in film, gender stereotyping and advancing women in politics.
Delegations from governments and civil society and individuals have already showed up, traveling from Bulgaria and Iceland, from Nepal and Burkina Faso and points in between. Participants will network, confer, swap stories and articulate a world in which women are welcomed in equal levels to all walks of life — politics, corporations, government, the UN, the bedroom, the kitchen, academia and all living, breathing spaces.
Dr. Irma Loemban Tobing-Klein, a former ambassador of Suriname to the UN, flew first from her home country to Amsterdam (to see a son) and onward to New York to get to the CSW on time. She was delayed in the Netherlands for 48 hours because of foul weather; she was delayed again to New York because of more snow. But there she sat, part of the assembled at the UN, on March 12.
Why did she come, year after year? “My dear, I came here because there is still — I don’t like the word ‘discrimination’ — but there is still inequality between females and males, even though equality is a birthright.”
How would she advise Trump and his administration to commit more strongly to gender equality?
Trump, she said, needed basic “human-rights training” to learn that equality is a natural inheritance. “People don’t realize they should be taught. Mr. Trump should know that.”
Martins Aghedosa summed up the optimism rippling through the first day of the CSW. As a representative of Nurses Across the Borders, a Nigerian service, Aghedosa comes to the women’s conference every year. This year, he said, he felt it would be better than last year.
“There’s more awareness now, of the place of women in society and gender equality.”