Blog - CSW59

A Greenhorn goes to CSW59

March 05, 2015

UN Sec - General Ban-ki-Moon stood before me with a tough looking stick in his hand (violence against women I remember thinking) asked sternly, "So why can't you recall the date of Security Council Resolution1325?" I stood there blank as a bonded sheet of paper. "Ok can you recall the twelve critical areas?" Yes, I could and rattled off of five in one breath and went blank... He continued "OK, last chance do you recall the venues of the 4 World Conferences?"... I just couldn't Beijing was the only one that stuck. Was I going to be sent home?

I got up sweating profusely--thank goodness it was only a dream ... and the kind face of Ban-ki-Moon seemed to smile at me.

Well, this was the kind of apprehension I had psyched myself into. Quite sure that to be selected from SIGBI for the CSW-59 had placed upon my aging shoulders a huge responsibility, and I had better know everything there has possibly been written about CSW and allied matters lest I let SIGBI down. To be one of the two first Indians was indeed an honour for Soroptimist from India. I dreamt of standing before the stately UN edifice clicking photos from every angle - caption - 'Me at the UN 2015 - landmark year.' I imagined shaking hands with UNWomen Executive Director-Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka and Secretary- General, give a hug to Malala, maybe be in the same frame as Emma Watson.

Come the first of 2015 I downloaded it all, doing nothing but reading, revising retaining till empowerment, violence, UNWomen, due diligence, caucuses , draft resolutions, femicide, Rashida Manjoo, CEDAW and connected jargon was pouring out of my ears. I looked at all possible links, at youtube films, and each time I opened my mouth it was something connected to CSW-59. Instead of my daily morning and night conversation with the almighty I starting revising the 12 critical areas. Each day I'd miss a couple and start again next day with renewed faith on my recalling powers. Every morning I'd go over the different caucuses and the countries in my region. The details and declarations of each world conference were committed to sheets of paper and to storage bank in my head. I didn't want to reach the portals of UN and be overwhelmed by the experienced 8000 odd women who would be all speaking in one voice.

By February I had a lot of facts and figures right and made connection with the UNWomen Mission in New Delhi, be a part of their tele-con-ing, and their mail group. Then it started to rain - literally the mails pouring in buckets, from UN women, from the Indian NGO and from Sue Biggs and Pat Black. My mail box was inundated .The ground passes, the confirmations for this and that event, the historic walk down centre of NY City all had to be got.

The webinar with Soroptimists across Federations was a first - No seriously was just beginning to understand the enormity of the situation I mean the discrimination against women, the violence that surrounded the fragility of a woman's life. And women have been rising their numbers increasing steadily. It gave me a global perspective to the collective voice that women have raised for the first time in the history of womenkind- or mankind. The concerted pressure that NGO groups could put on their governments, the importance that UNWomen has given to NGOS and CSOs was a recognition of their role in aiding monumental changes both at political and societal end.

This historic year 2015 was 20 years since the Beijing Declaration the most comprehensive document placed on record to alter the status of women. It was 15 years since the Security Council passed the Resolution1325 focusing on women in armed conflict. Historic also as it marks the end of the MDGs and a look forward to the SDGs that promise that no development is sustainable if women remain unequal partners. This is the year for HeforShe, the Impact 10X10X10 was unveiled at Davos and CSW-59 anticipates the Climate Change Conferences 2015 in Paris and I was going to be part of this history- never mind the record snow in New York, the loads of woolens, snowboots etc - I think I'll pass the test.

Ready for the Business

March 07, 2015

It snowed here on Friday night and the next day CSW newbies anticipated with trepidation. 7th morning despite the carpets of snow the sky is a heavenly blue - so full of promise. Today we are going for our security passes to enter the revered portals of the UN zone.

The planning and countdown is over and here we are making our way to ONE UN Hotel where most of the SI delegates have booked in. The lobby has a charged air, women are everywhere, all colours and nationalities. The only common denominator - the steely look of women who mean business clad in heavy duty warm clothes. Ready for the business in hand, raising their voices to demand equality.

By 4pm, familiar faces trickled in lead by President Jenny Vince. We could have been at a SIGBI Conference. The first timers were going to be shepherded through the daunting security system. Very systematic and very orderly, and before we can annunciate Millennium Development Goals we are through - our printed passes checked, photographed and handed bright blue batches with Soroptimist blue lanyard! Major hurdle over. Now we were set to go!

The amazing thing as I looked around at the lines is the number of young women and girls waiting for security checks. APD ESOSOC Pat Black enlightens on this. This year UN Women has made a concerted effort to focus on the youth. Several workshops and side events have been planned with this in mind. Already across the world youth focus programmes are under way such as Voices against Violence - a pilot project which is being tried at the WAGGS centre in India, or the empowering girls in Kyrgyzstan, or working on the gender divide in the Dominican Republic. Changing scenarios where often the youth are economically excluded, where fragmentation of families and societies has marred their involvement in developmental work are taken into account when training youth leaders to help forward the change.

There is one goal to this effort - amplifying the voices of girls in the Post 2015 agenda. The UN Women advisory Group seek the cooperation of member states to push this in their own regions. Soroptimists at their Club levels transmit this message through projects and would enhance their efforts reaching the vulnerable girls in their communities.

A March for March

March 09, 2015

"What do we want? Gender Equality"
"When do we want? Now"

The single war cry that reverberated through the streets of New York from 44th Street East all the way to Times Square. The challenging sounds rushing though skyscrapers lined streets created a Venturi-effect- this International Women's Day 2015.

Historic in its own way, 20 years after Beijing, 15 years after Resolution 1325, 35 years after CEDAW, the end of the MDGs, the transitions to the Post 2015 agenda and the SDGs. Several thousand women marched through those streets affirming their belief that gender equality will also be within reach this IWD.

The march began near Dag Hammerskjold Plaza and UN Secretary General Ban-ki-Moon along with the first lady, UN Women Executive Director Phumizile Mlambo Ngcuka, and Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri, along with celebrity actors Paul Bettany and AnnaLynn McCord addressed the gathering before the march began. They led the walk with the women chanting in unison followed briskly.

The Walk was divided into blocks each representing one of the twelve critical areas.

The Regional Groups - Training for Advocacy

March 09, 2015

Aching legs and sore feet after Sunday's walk do not dampen our enthusiasm and come Monday morning all delegates are zipping to various event venues. CSW59 has begun in earnest.

An important initial activity are the workshops designed to help capacity building of NGOs and human rights activists. Organized by the NGO Committee on the Status of Women New York, the component they presented "Training for Advocacy and Capacity Building".

The first meeting for this was for the Asia - Pacific region, followed by other regional conglomeration of the participating NGOs and Civil Society reps. The regions NGO Committees like the Asia, Pacific, the Arab States Latin America and the Caribbean along with African States Group, the East European states Group and the Western European and other together bring a collective effort, mixed with a regional diversity.

A compact guide booklet presented to the attendees besides the meaningful presentation was indeed an enriching experience. For voluntary Social workers like Soroptimists it was an eye opener. The facilitator went through CSW conferences, Human Rights issues, the inter - governmental processes, the advocacy tools, and the need to engage the media as well as be conversant with the big four of social media.(Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and Linkedin).

It was interesting to learn how each document that member states sign have previously gone through endless stages as from zero draft, to the agreed conclusions and outcomes. They tell us "Language is not just semantics. It has political power. Ultimately, language agreed within the UN by governments can influence and often lead to programmes and policies on the ground."

The Struggle of Memory Against Forgetting

March 11, 2015

Security Council Resolution 1325 - For the first time the global community had a hard look at the plight of women during armed conflict. Not only as victims but as potential participants in the peace process. Their presence would mainstream the gender perspective and convey the humanitarian dimensions. Bringing this to the forefront at a parallel event at CSW-59 was an emotive film.

"The Song of the Reed is a melody as soft and fleeting as the mountain breeze, but with a message as strong as a blowing storm". Kang Shu-hua's narrative threw up several questions. In an armed conflict historically women are part of the loot for the victor, or women are abused denigrated by the perpetrating country, to send a message of subjugation. History has been witness to this time and again. But what happens when there is a denial of history, when documents, places, official records and the women themselves, are negated?

The Taipei Women's Rescue Foundation (TWRF), an NGO that began work to bring assistance to victims of gender-specific violence. Since 1992, it began assisting a group of women that were survivors of sexual atrocities by the Japanese military. A large number of women from Taiwan and other Asia-Pacific countries had survived the sexual abuse by the army, but no one talked of it. In the early 1990s a Korean survivor Kim Hakson, testified against the systematic sexual slavery system. She was the first comfort woman and this gave tremendous boost to survivors in other countries. These comfort women hither to led a life of shame, rejection by their families, mental and physically agony battling the demons of their past in solitude. TWFR identified 58 of these survivors, twenty were alive then. TWRF lobbied for their compensation, set up hot lines to take calls from victims, their families, gave medical and counselling services to them. It was through their unstinting efforts that the War Tribunals were set up to seek reprisal and apology from the Japanese government. The Tribunals proceedings were documented and shown as a separate film as part of the event.

What is applaud able that an NGO was able to take up an issue that has been buried, ignored and denied by governments. They focused on the few surviving comfort women in Taiwan and urged their government to preserve the legacy. It is through their efforts that all 822 records available have been digitized and put in the National Taiwanese University. Again they have managed to get the fact of the comfort women incorporated into the high school history text books. Exhibitions, museum events highlighted the existence of an almost forgotten piece pf history. The research done by dedicated women resulted in a book and bringing the story of the comfort women to every possible international forum.

The film made in 2010 is about the coming out of these Ah-ma (grandmothers). The then surviving six ah-mas reveal their stories, the isolation and the mental agony they have lived with. TWRF's excellent Pyscho-therapy workshops to help the aging women come to terms with their past is perhaps the most touching part of the film. For example the ah-mas are encouraged to draw. All of them drew themselves as young pretty girls, perhaps for them their lives had stopped there. They are in denial about the rest. The carefully designed workshops lead the women to reconcile with the perpetrators with the horrors of being abused (up to 60 times a day) and being held captive for more than a thousand days. The scars were deep and un-healing. TWRF though the workshops brought a smile a reconciliation for them. The fun things, the bonding and the support they got from the public and government becomes sustenance they carry with them to their graves.

TWRF not only asks for recognition of the comfort women, but brings the issue of human rights to the forefront. It is seventy years ago since the war ended but today in the 21st century women are the worst sufferers in war torn situations be it Yugoslavia, Afghanistan or Syria. Kang Shu-hua the producer says that the gender issue here hasn't touched the international community with as severity as it needs to. "By telling the truth today we are passing on the legacy to the future generations, not to re-enforce enmity, but look at the past with a different mindset-one of reconciliation."

Voices from the Grassroots

March 15, 2015

Friday the 13th was the end of a week at CSW59. Six of the seven Soroptimist events were over, well conducted and well attended. A strong Soroptimist presence in the parallel events by NGOs and CSOs I should think. Three of these events were key Soroptimist events while the other three were collaborations with other organizations. On Friday Soroptimists from across federations presented Voices from the Grassroots.

Yvonne Simpson from SISWP introduced the speakers whose presentations had a message in one voice to alleviate economic conditions of women and girls. As one of the critical areas of the Beijing Platform for Action-it is stated "There are considerable differences in women's and men's access to and opportunities...women are virtually absent from or poorly represented in economic decision making..." Those born in the poorest of the poor conditions seem to be the most disadvantaged humans in the world.

Soroptimists in their projects have focused on girls in poverty, older women in poverty, rural and migrant women battling poverty and much more. SI Ankara in Turkey set up a project for migrant women and girls to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Providing relevant resources to girls in the community of Kigali the Soroptimists provided rabbits so some money their sale would bring to send the children to school. SI Barbados have a long standing project, working with girls in the Reform Centre - equipping them with skills that could get them simple jobs. Then again SI Auckland look at multifaceted problems for migrant women. SI Oita-Midori-Japan support the Tharu women, a very poor community in Nepal-providing a night school, means of livelihood empowering with skills and micro credit training. Finally SI of the Americas explore and support the poverty that comes to older women and offer ways to combat deprivation in later age.

The cycle of poverty brings along with lack of education, malnutrition and vulnerability to violence. Soroptimists have the responsibility to act locally crafting their projects with the need of the communities they serve. Post the presentations, the audience were invited to suggest interventions that may provide innovative ways to continue the war on poverty.

Week Two will see the last Soroptimist event in collaboration with other organizations. The topic "Living Women's Leadership, Living Global Citizenship: Strengthening the Beijing Platform."

Vignettes CSW59

March 20, 2015

As the curtains come down on this historic CSW59, and the frenetic activity to get the right language into the working methods is on, I recall some delightful moments of being there.

First - have to clear this one - lots of women I met mostly the first timer NGO types like us were astonished that the events (parallel or otherwise) were happening in mid-sized rooms, small auditoriums, at country missions etc - CSW at UN means the image we all have of the General Assembly Hall, its reverential podium, its awe-inspiring background and rows and rows of VIPs. Imagine having to deliver a presentation on domestic violence, or on solar cookers from that podium. Well, truth be told so did folks back home think so and everyone wants to know how many heard you!!.OK people get this right-just to be connected to CSW is jaw dropping, and to be in New York within the precinct of THE UNITED NATIONS is uplifting enough doesn't matter the size of the room you delivered your piece in.

It is impossible to put everything seen, heard and experienced into blogs even if they are mega ones. In fact a Jane Austen style diary would not even do justice to the buzzing activity of those 14 days. But some enduring images and quotes remain.

  • Warm hugs and positive vibrations. Almost 9000 women from across the world in a conference and the hugs of joy and camaraderie that are exchanged.
  • A toddler bundled against the cold in a push chair had a placard "Gender Equality is the Bee's Knees."
  • "Men Can Stop Street Harassment"- a poster carried by a middle aged Caucasian man.
  • SI President Ann with the Soroptimist Banner draped on her shoulders.
  • Women from Hong Kong used the walk as a forum to raise their voices against the persecution in China.
  • Guvnor Yoko from Soroptimist Japan making her maiden speech in English and coming off with flying colours.
  • A Palestinian girl head covered but strongly makes her presence during the walk.
  • "Feminists are here and we want to be heard"-says one placard
  • Bumping into UN women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka in the lift - getting tongue tied shaking hands with her but forgetting to ask for a click opportunity.
  • New York Cheese Cake at the UN cafeteria.
  • A bunch of Mexican girls distributing fliers and explaining to me that they don't believe in pre-marital sex. Why do all people think today's teens want it she asks.!
  • The tram car on a ropeway to Roosevelt Island - a sheer 4 minute ride over the East river.
  • Korean girls in traditional garb with enormous fans followed by young Korean men carrying banners - provide colourful relief to the dark winter clothing of most people in the march.
  • The chance meeting with the Women of Distinction Awardee - Ruchira Gupta - perhaps the most sought after speaker - but the inability to have a one to one meeting with her.
  • UN Women's new call to governments "Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality"
  • Karmen Ramerirez Boscan an indigenous woman of Columbia - in a startling red gown with her infant strapped to her back at the Intergenerational Dialogue session.
  • Good-looking NYPD (right out of the TV shows) firmly shepherding women whenever they stepped out of line during the walk.
  • Excellent films - Justice for My Sister - Nicaragua and Song of the Reed - From Taiwan. The film medium used befittingly to highlight violence against women.
  • The seriousness of Ann, Pat, Hilary, which made us understand how Soroptimists play a role in shaping documents that come out of CSW and of course connecting us to a larger picture.

Understanding Transnational Feminist Movements

March 22, 2015

The 1,000 page Oxford Handbook of Transnational Feminist Movements should become a foundational text for every Soroptimist, indeed every self-defined feminist, and every person (woman, girl, man or boy) who has allied herself or himself to the cause for women's rights and gender equality in any way.

The book was launched at UN Women's Intergenerational Dialogue event, held in the ECOSOC Chamber, at the UN Secretariat in New York, at the annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which celebrates the 20th anniversary of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing+20) this year.

Co-editor of the book, Dr. Rawwida Baksh, says it was a great honour for UN Women to launch the book during CSW-59. In her speech, she said, "Transnational feminist movements are rich and diverse. Their origins are located in anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, civil rights, anti-war, pro-democracy, indigenous peoples, workers, peasants, youth, disability, and LGBT movements. They seek to transform patriarchy, or 'depatriarchalize' society, addressing issues from violations of the most intimate relations to the discriminatory and unequal gender norms in political, economic, social and cultural institutions."

Rawwida has been involved in the feminist movement as an activist, researcher, writer and policy adviser on women's rights and gender equality since the mid-1980s. Growing up in the post-independence period of the 1960s and '70s in the Caribbean, with a single widowed mother of ten children who was "the first feminist in my lived experience", Rawwida had the freedom to question religious and cultural traditions, and begin thinking about issues of race, ethnicity, class and poverty in her community and society. She went on to university in the late 1970s and early 1980s, choosing to study the humanities over the natural sciences. At the time, the 'second wave' of the global feminist movement was in its heyday, and women's organizations were being established across the Caribbean. She got involved in founding Women Working for Social Progress (Workingwomen) in Trinidad and Tobago. Her activism grew from the national to the regional level, as a founding member and first coordinator of the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action (CAFRA), and the international level as a steering committee member of the DAWN Third World network. She subsequently went on to head of the Gender Section at the Commonwealth Secretariat (London, UK), and lead the Women's Rights and Citizenship programme at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC, Ottawa, Canada).

Rawwida and Wendy Harcourt met and renewed their friendship at a feminist conference held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2010, and conceived the idea of the book. Wendy was at the time Editor of Development and Director of Programmes, Society for International Development (Rome, Italy). She is currently Professor of Critical Development and Feminist Studies, Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University (The Hague, The Netherlands).

The Handbook explores the historical, political, economic and social contexts in which transnational feminist movements have emerged and spread, and the contributions they have made to global knowledge, power and social change over the past half century. It reflects candidly on how they have contributed to our understanding of the myriad formal and informal ways in which gendered power relations define and inform everyday life. And it asks to what extent have they destabilized or transformed the global hegemonic systems that constitute patriarchy?

The Handbook is organized into ten sections which explore the main themes that have emerged from transnational feminist movements: knowledge, theory and praxis; organizing for change; body politics, health and well-being; human rights and human security; economic and social justice; citizenship and state-building; militarism and religious fundamentalisms; peace movements, UNSCR 1325 and post-conflict rebuilding; feminist political ecology; and digital-age transformations and future trajectories.

Soroptimists, I encourage you to read the Handbook. You are part of the movement. At this moment of Beijing+20 and the post-2015 agenda, it is time for critical reflection ...