As I reflect on my final year chairing the NGO Committee on the Status of Women, which organizes the forum parallel to the annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, I wonder, How did I get here?
This year’s session opens on March 6, but let me take you back to a beautiful February day in 2011, when I had a coveted CSW UN grounds pass, thanks to the Armenian Relief Society. A friend heard I was divorced and needed a new adventure, so she hooked me up with the Armenian group, suggesting, “Houry is a New Yorker and can get things done for you.” Little did they know that I needed this gig as a lifeline and that it was going to be one of the biggest lessons of my life, starting with learning the endless UN acronyms. I walked around the crowded halls of the UN at the 55th conference, attending its events and exploring the civil society parallel events at the Church Center, across the street, where advocates shared their experiences in improving gender equality globally.
I was lucky enough to meet women from the NGO Committee on the Status of Women (speaking of acronyms, it’s NGO/CSW) and witnessed the launching of UN Women, in 2010, where its first executive director, Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile, spoke about providing women and girls better health care and education, economic empowerment and protection from violence. I could relate to all of it.
I am an Armenian born in Beirut. My grandparents survived a genocide; my parents endured 20 years of Lebanese civil war. At age 15, I was already married, and my husband and I immigrated to New York City in 1976, where all I wanted to do was finish high school and dance at Studio 54. Miraculously, I got a high school equivalency diploma within six months, danced a lot and eventually owned a beauty business with my husband for 35 years. As proud as I am of what we accomplished, raising three amazing feminist sons and enjoyin a lavish lifestyle, I knew I had to find my own voice that I buried at age 14, when I married. That is what brought me to CSW55, divorced and almost 50 years old.
Even with all my accomplishments, I could relate to every challenge that UN Women promised to use the UN system to achieve gender equality. I was in. I became the part-time UN coordinator of the Armenian Relief Society, working 60 to 70 hours a week, learning more than any formal education could teach me.
The NGO/CSW became my second home for the next 12 years, with one small interlude when I had a mini-breakdown and had to quit both the Armenian society and the NGO job. The meltdown was prompted by colleagues whom I loved and trusted, but who questioned my insights because I did not yet have a college degree, and they demeaned me and my contributions. I also knew that I was not the only one being bullied, but I did not have the tools to manage it while dealing with the work itself. What brought me back in a few months was watching a young member stand up for herself. I was grateful for that experience, which prompted me to stand up for myself and those around me who were also getting hurt. The reality that some feminists and women’s rights activists continued to adopt patriarchal attitudes of dominance and privilege in our own space was new to me.
We know that bullying is pervasive in many spaces, but just because we advocate for human rights does not make us immune to such harm. Most people in this human-rights space are present with clear heart and mind, and it is truly amazing what one or two bullies can do to a perfectly fine group. It hurt me even more because I had so much respect for these inspiring women who were working and sharing their expertise as part of the movement.
Back in 1995, while I was still nursing my marriage, women’s rights activists achieved an unprecedented agreement with 189 countries to adopt the Beijing Platform for Action’s 12 critical areas of concern. It remains the defining document driving CSW. While we work with UN member states to help carry out the Beijing declaration, we are also supporting creative ideas that can deliver faster, more targeted achievements.
One example is the Generation Equality Forum, held in Mexico City and Paris in 2021 and meant to push gender equality across the finish line. I was tasked by UN Women to be the civil society organizer, helping to arrange the forum’s multiparty approach that ran parallel to the UN-led process. Despite slowdowns from the pandemic, the forum’s focus remains a primary global campaign in promoting gender equality through its so-called “action coalitions.” These include tackling such ambitious topics as gender-based violence, economic justice, reproductive health, climate justice, technology, feminist movement, peace/security and global alliance for care.
Now, as I look forward to my final forum as chair of the NGO/CSW, the lessons I learned are that the women’s movement itself also needs much healing and reflection. If we don’t take care of ourselves individually, we bring the pain into our work, social life and families. I see a clear line between the individual and the world. A peaceful mind and body can bring peaceful solutions. In my own journey of healing with therapy, meditation and yoga, I discovered Ahimsa, the principle of respect for all living things and avoidance of violence toward others. We must all keep striving to protect ourselves, our planet and all living beings.
This is the ethos the NGO/CSW is trying to bring to this year’s annual women’s meeting at the UN and to our own parallel forum this week and next. In the last four years, we have been experiencing shifts I never imagined — a change that inspires me to get up every day and try harder. The change has led to our organization quadrupling our followers and our influence, mostly based on the shift to virtual participation to the CSW forums. Thousands of more people can now attend the 11-day conference without traveling to New York City.
In March 2020, we had to cancel the 64th session of the CSW due to Covid-19. We went fully virtual the next year, hosting more than 27,000 global participants and holding 700-plus parallel events on our portal. With this year’s hybrid model, CSW67 will be focusing on innovation, technological change and education in the digital age. It will take more than a village to pull this off.
My team at the NGO/CSW is determined to shake up the status quo through our parallel forum. The partnerships and collaborations we are bringing together through a transparent, shared leadership model is the start of a more creative way to present our demands to improve the lives of women and girls in all their diversity. Although the hybrid version has been challenging to organize, our forum features 400 virtual events and 350 in person. That includes “conversation circles,” regional caucuses and advocacy training.
As I learned from our African sisters: Ubuntu, meaning “I am because we are.” Thank you. Merci. Shukran. Shnorhagelem.
Houry Geudelekian chairs the NGO Committee on the Status of Women/New York organization, representing a coalition of more than 170 civil society organizations and thousands of global activists advocating for gender equality. She has a B.A. in women’s studies and international social change from the City University of New York.