Celebrate the feminist and women movements 1975-2015
UNCSW59 is the abbreviation for the 59th annual United Nations Conference on the Status of Women (UNCSW) being held in New York City from March 9 to 20. UNCSW is the principal global intergovernmental organization working on gender equality and empowerment for women. The commission focuses on issues such as including girls in education for all children, eliminating violence against women and girls, improving maternal and childbirth health, and empowering women to achieve political and social leadership roles.
This year’s UNCSW is particularly significant, because it is also the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action established in 1995 in Beijing at the Fourth World Conference on Women. Implementing the Beijing Platform for Women is this year’s UNCSW theme. According to the UN, the Beijing Platform for Action was when:
…an unprecedented 17,000 participants and 30,000 activists streamed into Beijing for the opening of the Fourth World Conference on Women in September 1995. They were remarkably diverse, coming from around the globe, but they had a single purpose in mind: gender equality and the empowerment of all women, everywhere.
Two weeks of political debate followed, heated at times, as representatives of 189 governments hammered out commitments that were historic in scope. Thirty thousand non-governmental activists attended a parallel Forum and kept the pressure on, networking, lobbying and training a global media spotlight. By the time the conference closed, it had produced the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s rights.
However, as can be seen in a message from Director Mlambo-Ngcuka to “step it up” for gender equality, the world has fallen far short of its lofty goals established two decades ago, and women together with men are called to action to make gender equity a reality.
The NGO Commission on the Status of Women [CSW] Consultation Day was held at the Apollo Theater, on Sunday March 8th which was International Women’s Day. The purpose of NGO CSW Forum Consultation Day is to set the stage for the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) meetings (9-20 March 2015) and facilitate interactions among participants.
The celebratory spirit of Consultation Day began as we entered the lobby of the Apollo Theater. An all women mariachi band, Mariachi Flor de Toloache, greeted us with joyful music. Mariachi Flor de Toloache is the first and only established all female mariachi band founded in New York in 2008.
When I arrived at the theatre, there was a lineup that went around the block. The theater personnel stamped our hands, just like they do for concerts. The audience was overwhelmingly women with a handful of men scattered around the theatre. I observed lots of enthusiastic greetings, hugs, and photo-taking.
We were greeted and welcomed to Harlem by the Queen Mother, Dr. DeLois N. Blakely. The honorary mayor of Harlem is a youthful, energetic former Roman Catholic nun from southern Florida and she has served as Harlem’s unofficial mayor for the last eight years. She dresses in a colorful African style, and has headquarters in an ordinary-looking apartment house on West 142nd Street. She is present at many UN sessions and was present when I gave the oral presentation there.
The program began with the opening event: Women of the World Ensemble, Songs from Mexico, Denmark, Kenya, and China. Four women from different of the world – Italy, India, Japan, and USA/Haiti sing songs from various countries in the countries’ native languages. Women of the World is an ensemble of musicians from different corners of the globe. By making music together, they have made beautiful friendships. In this spirit, they celebrate the beauty of diversity. They sing for not just tolerance, but also wisdom, respect, and joy. Their short medley of songs roused us to our feet to clap and sway with their music.
Welcoming messages were delivered by Soon-Young Yoon, Chari, NGO Committee on the Status of Women-New York and Phumzile Malambo-Ngcuka—Under Secretary- General and Executive Director, UN Women. Ms. Malambo-Ngcuka stated in her remarks that “the next 15 years are the last mile we must break the back of gender inequality after all. We have a lot of work to do. We must break the back of gender inequality once and for all. She stated that the world must change, not the women.” Because a child cannot marry, a child cannot be a bride.”
Development and human rights are not enough by themselves. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka from South Africa referred to this cross-cutting theme that permeated this week’s discussions. We cannot see women’s issues purely as either a human rights or a development issue. Often when rights and development issues were addressed, there were still major obstacles for women to overcome because of culture, traditional gender roles or religion. Human rights should not be seen as one separate focal point for the movement but is cross cutting and by itself, is still not the panacea to fix the systemic issues that largely remain unaddressed.
There was a showing of video clips of the World Conferences on Women in Mexico City, 1975.1980, 1985, and 1995. (Can be seen on You Tube- by eerookko- four videos).
First World Conference: Mexico City, 19 June-2 July, 1975; 133 Member State Delegates; 4000 NGO Participants. Second World Conference, Copenhagen, 14-30 July, 1980; 145 Member State Delegates; 8000 NGO Participants. Third World Conference, Nairobi, 15-26 July, 1985; 157 Member States Delegates; 13, 500 NGO Participants. Fourth World Conference, 4-15 September 1995; 189Member States; 17,000 NGO Participants. The focus in 1975 (Mexico) was on Gender Equality and an International year of Women, 1980 (Copenhagen) Women Peace and Security, 1990 (Nairobi) Sexual and Reproductive Rights. 1995 concluded with the Beijing Declaration and a Platform for Action.
Then there was an historical perspective. Music gave way to readings from the UN Conferences by Mahnaz Afkhami, former Minister of Women’s Affairs of Iran and President/CEO of Women’s Learning Partnership (Nairobi, 1985) H. E. Ambassador Ib Peterson from Denmark, (Copenhagen, 1980) Sheila Katzman, Chair of the Cities for CEDAW/New York City, and Tanya Selvaratnam, Producer/Artist and author of “The Big Lie”.
There have been four World Conferences on Women organized by the U.N.: To commemorate the four conferences, four people came on stage individually to give a brief reading from the documents of those conferences.
Each world conference contributed significantly to the ongoing struggle for gender equality and women’s and girls’ human rights. A slogan repeatedly said frequently is “Women’s Rights are Human Rights and Human Rights are Women’s Rights.” These past six months, I attended the meetings for the Working Group on Girls. In my mind, I automatically insert “and Girls.” In seeking changes, it could have been written just yesterday because it is still relevant for 2015 with newer realities and challenges.
The keynote address was delivered by Ruchira Gupta from India, one of the the 2015 NGO CSW Forum Women of Distinction awardee, and founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide – a grassroots organization in India working to end sex trafficking by increasing choices for at-risk girls and women. It empowers more than 20,000 low-caste girls and women and their family members affected by prostitution. For over 25 years, Gupta has worked to end sex trafficking by emphasizing the link She has strived over her 25 year career to highlight the link between trafficking and prostitution laws, and to lobby policy makers to shift the blame from victims to perpetrators.
She shared her story of when she was a journalist who was travelling in Nepal about 20 years ago and came across villages with missing girls and discovered that there was sex trafficking from these villages to the brothels in Mumbai. She made a documentary called The Selling of Innocents. She spent a lot of time talking to the women, sharing their anguish and their dreams. At one point during filming, they saved her when a client/pimp pulled a knife to stop her. She now writes from the point of view of the last girl – who is poor, female, low-caste and a teenager. She issued a very strong call to have a world where the dignity of the last girl is upheld and envisioning a world where girls and women cannot be bought and sold. A quote ‘If we normalize the exploitation of some women we normalize the exploitation of all.’ I was moved to tears in listening to her story.
When she returned to the brothels to show the documentary, the 22 women in prostitution who had told their stories in the documentary said they wanted her help to change their lives. They had four dreams: 1. A school for their daughters to save them from the same fate as themselves 2. A job in an office, where they could work fixed hours, nobody would beat them, where there was old age pension and 3. A room of their own: where nobody could walk in when they wanted, where they could sleep as long as they liked and where their children could play safely and 4. Justice -severe punishment of those who had brokered away their dreams by selling and buying them and those who failed to protect them from being trafficked or when they tried to escape.
She told them that they could save themselves if they organized to speak up and resist the violence just as they had saved her from the knife when she was filming. They said they did not have money, education or networks. Together they formed Apne Aap, which means “self-empowerment and self-achievement” in Hindi. Their aim was to create a world in which no woman is bought or sold. They hired a teacher and in a small room in the red-light area, they started to prepare the children for school. When they were ready, the women went as a group of mothers to the local school principle and cried and begged till he overcame his prejudice and admitted them.
Emboldened, the women then wanted to do something for themselves. They realized that to access anything they needed citizenship documents, like birth certificates or passports or other government-issued IDs. They were helped to fill forms and then campaign with local authorities to get the documents. The women wrote slogans, made posters, signed petitions to put pressure on authorities to give them the IDs. If that failed, they spoke to the media. That helped them get both the IDs and the linked government subsidies like low cost food rations, low-cost health care, low interest loans, slowly reducing their expenses and desperation. Their dependency on the brothels came down. They were beaten. They helped with legal support to go file a case in a police station or testify in court.
At the same time they started linking with livelihood promotion organizations and helping women open bank accounts to save some money safely. The whole process created everlasting friendships between the women; they called this the self-empowerment group. Over the years, the program grew and we took this approach to other red-light areas in Bhiwandi, Delhi, Bihar and Kolkata. They called it the “ten asset approach” and defined each step as an asset – a safe space, to school, to self-confidence, to political campaign skills, to government IDs, to government subsidies, to bank accounts and loans, to legal support, to livelihood skills and finally nine friends or membership of a group and a network.
More than 21,000 girls, women and their family members became members of this network and reduced their risk or dependency on prostitution. The first generation of daughters of these women are in college now. Over another 1200 are in schools for the first time in their families. They have put 66 traffickers in jail. In 2013, this network was vocal and strong enough to get trafficking made a penal offense as part of the anti-rape law passed after the Delhi Bus rape on December 16, 2012. This year they won a comprehensive judgment at the Patna High Court forcing the Bihar government to launch a holistic anti-trafficking program.
Gupta shared an insightful concept: avoid “skimming the top of the bottom.” In other words, we must go deeper than just superficial attention to changing the wrongs of society and intentionally focus attention to change the root causes of evils such as sexual human trafficking. We must practice consistent and persistent activism against violence directed at women and girls. She pointed out that one kind of crime is connected to other kinds of crime, and that violence against a woman of low-caste or poor or a woman of colour normalizes exploitation against all. She said that we cannot create a culture of masculinity in which men get away with sexual exploitation if they pay for it. In development we can get the big numbers fast, but unless we include the last we can’t bring about change. She concluded by saying, “We can only walk the last mile if we walk with the last GIRL.”
The Beijing+20 Panel “Voices from the Regions” brought together women from eight regions of the world and a respondent on a panel to bear witness to the progress or lack of progress and current issues and hopes regarding the 12 action foci of the Beijing Platform for Action.
It was an historic review of the UN/international women’s movement from 1975-1995 and impact by region, regional Declarations, Indigenous Women’s Declaration. Panelists were:
Dinah Musindarwezo – The African Women’s Development and Communication Network (Femnet), Kenya; Asma Khader – Vice-President of Independent Elections Commission and former Secretary General of the Jordanian National Commission for Women, Jordan; Sepali Kottegoda – Women and Media Collective, Sri Lanka; Simone Ovart – Zonta International, Switzerland; Mabel Bianco – Fundacion para Estudio e de la Mujer (FEIM), Argentina Gertrud Astrom – Swedish Women’s Lobby, Sweden; Agnes Leina – Ll’laramatak Community Concerns (ICC-K); Ambassador Dubravka Simonovic – Ambassador of Croatia to the OSCE and UN in Vienna and former CEDAW expert. Moderator was Ambassador Carlos Garcia Gonzalez – former Permanent Representative for El Salvador to the United Nations. Discussant was Charlotte Bunch – Board of Governor’s Distinguished Service Professor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University.
Unpaid care work will keep women from full participation in economy if we don’t address it, according to Sepali Kottegode. Gertrude Astrom said that parents are both men and women who must share unpaid care work equally. She reminded us that Sweden was the first country in the world to criminalize sex purchase! It’s not enough to make laws; you have to apply them.” Simone Ovart, said on the panel.
In response Charlotte Bunch stated we need to learn from our differences rather than disagree. “Human rights begin at home. We’re all in this together. Can we defend women who are defending this platform? We can’t let use of differences by patriarchy divide us. These women raised issues such as how class plays a major role in the gaps in benefits (such as access to housing, education, and jobs and freedom from violence) of women living in poverty compared to women with more affluence. They pointed out it is important to ally with women in other movements besides the particular segment of the human rights movement in which you participate.
Several of the women spoke against religious extremism that is “distilled and exaggerated,” which has become a fault line in all people’s lives, having the potential to cause serious harmful consequences in many communities. The panelists cited violence against Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRD) as something that women must rally together to name and combat. They challenged the audience: “Can we defend women human rights defenders in our neighborhoods?”
The panelists spoke forcefully against the political use of religion to achieve political purposes, which leads to dividing the people in communities from each other. They cited the need for accountability in connecting local movements with global movements. The women closed with some important reminders for all people who care about human rights: Keep the fire burning. With equality, there is no deadline. Who do you want to be equal to?
Then, Dr. Gertrude Mongella, educator, politician, diplomat activist”, former Under-Secretary General from Tanzania, UN Fourth World Conference on Women gave her views on What Beijing Plus 20 Must Accomplish. She said Revolution of Political Empowerment of Women is Now! No turning back. It’s only when we talk about US that we can carry on the revolution. Dr. Mongella said it’s time to “step it up” laws have been put in place but not implemented. We must aim to achieve gender equality by 2030. When the Pan African Parliament was being formed, they asked if she was running for Vice President. She told them I’d outgrown that position. Dr. Gertrude Mongella: Who do we want to be equal to? The men are equally miserable to one another! She asked the packed auditorium ‘Have you done your homework?’ Who are those women if they are not you? Whom do I want to be equal to? Recalling the energy and enthusiasm that surrounded the event she told the participants that gender equality and empowerment for women “is a revolution, there is no going back […] you cannot say democracy, but without women.”
She described the journey like sitting behind a man driving a car very slowly in a narrow road and he is holding up the cars behind him. Dr. Mongella brought the house down in laughter when she said to the gathering of several thousand women and male allies, it is time to overtake the men driving the car at their pace. Women need to set their own agendas and move the goals of the Beijing Platform at a different pace than the one controlled by men.
Dr. Mongella helped summarize a packed day at the Apollo Theater, rocking with world music and universal messages of hope and renewal for humanity: Have confidence. Instill confidence. Build teams. You can’t go it alone. Remember your constituents. Walk alongside them. Invite them to walk with you. Gather evidence. Do the research. Develop trust as you work with institutions and governments in order to build capacity. Maintain multi-level, multi-faceted relationships.
Strategic Action to Strengthen the BPfA: Young Activist Perspectives. This panel featured young activists who are actively carrying out the vision of the Beijing Platform for Action, CEDAW, and the post-2015 development agenda. With audience participation, the speakers will develop ideas for a strategic plan of action. The Introductory Remarks were given by Mary Robinson – Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice and former President of Ireland. The panelists were Emilia Reyes – Equidad de Genero; Esther Kimani – Young Women’s Leadership Institute Nairobi; Diana Mao – NOMI Network; Geraldo Porteny Backal – Young Men for Gender Equality; Faith Nenkai Metiaki – Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) Forum des educatrices africaines. The Moderator/Panelist was Fabio Palacio – International Movement ATD 4th World. The discussant was Thayvie Sinn – Save Cambodia. The young activists shared their dreams and hopes for what the world could be like and how the NGOs which they have joined and started are helping to create a more equitable future for all.
Former Irish President Mary Robinson sat among a panel of young people and talked about being inspired by their work and commitment to gender issues. She reminded the audience she was elected to the Irish Senate at 25 years old, and her work as an attorney helped to legalize contraception in conservative Catholic Ireland and decriminalize homosexuality from the laws that still apply in nearly 80 countries. She spoke of her work as a human rights activist starting with her election to the Senate in 1969. In the early 70’s she received a lot of backlash as she tried to progress women’s rights and family planning. She encouraged young male and female activists to continue to stand up for what they believe in.
Mrs. Robinson discussed the negative devastating impacts of climate change which particularly effects women. She also reminded the audience that the days of single issue causes were truly over, and talked passionately about her new role in the UN, overseeing the effects of climate change on all aspects of our common life. She gave examples of how climate change is affecting women all over the world and we can no longer silo it as an issue other people have to fight. Climate change must be on our Agenda’s. “It’s women who change behavior in the household, the community, the workplace. We need transformative change. Climate change issues need to be included into Beijing Plus 20 as they exacerbate inequalities and poverty. She challenged us to “Pay the price. Stick to your principles.”
The moderator, Fabio Palacio said that he was proud to be a man advocating for women’s rights at the Forum. There was one man of the panel –Geraldo Portent Back- who said that when women win we all win.” To achieve gender equality we can’t leave anyone behind.” Esther Kimani. Development cannot truly happen until human rights includes everyone.
Before I left the Apollo Theatre I could not but help admire the confidence and grace of young women who developed and used their voices. They were able to claim their rightful place among leaders and decision makers. They spoke about issues that matter to them and to young people everywhere. Old enough now to be considered an elder, I have great pride and hope that the work of advocating for human rights for women and girls of all ages and men will continue to go forward with the next generations. I think that it is only with the vision and perseverance of all of us through the many generations that justice, peace, and equality will overcome discrimination, oppression, and violence among us.
After the Consultation Forum was over, I joined Grace Hollett from St. Johns and several other women from the Canadian Federation of University Women and took the subway to Times Square in time to join the thousands of women and men from around the world for the March for Gender Equality and Women’s Rights on International Women’s Day.