Women’s Day: A Historic Opportunity Unveiled
THE UNITED NATIONS, 7 March 2011
by Kanya D'Almeida – TerraViva Europe
In [8 Mar] 1945, more than half a century ago, the signing of the United Nations Charter in San Francisco wrote women’s equality into its canon, creating an indisputable commitment to gender equity in the post-World War global order.
Though only four of the original 160 signatories were women, Minerva Bernardino from the Dominican Republic, Virginia Gildersleeve from the United States, Bertha Lutz from Brazil and Wu Yi-Fang from China successfully inscribed women’s rights in the U.N.’s founding document, which stresses in its preamble “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small”.
However, 66 years later, women continue to struggle, far below the level of their male counterparts, in every single aspect of human society. Only 11 of the 192 heads of state are women; one in three women in the world will experience rape or sexual assault in her lifetime; and while performing two-thirds of the world’s work, women own a mere one percent of the means of production.
While the 55th session of the Commission on the Status of Women draws to a close Friday, after two weeks of workshops and conferences, activists say these abysmal statistics must not be pushed into the shadows of high-level consultations, self-congratulatory events and erudite consultations, and the question must be asked – what has the CSW achieved for women’s rights? Where should it go from here?
U.N. Women – Seizing the Moment
The 2011 CSW saw the launch of U.N. Women – a newly founded task force dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment. The establishment of U.N. Women represents a moment of victory in a long and arduous battle for gender rights within a multilateral body comprised largely of male- dominated, male chauvinist nation states.
For the women at CSW – from activists to government heads to policy-makers from diverse countries around the world – the induction of U.N. Women represents a historic opportunity for radical change, both within the U.N. and within the global, political and economic system.
“U.N. Women comes at a time when the bankruptcy of the policies of the last seven decades have been laid bare,” Mallika Dutt, president and CEO of Breakthrough, told IPS.
“We have a global crisis in terms of financial institutions, we have a global ecological crisis, we have a crisis of ongoing conflicts all over the world – I think everyone agrees that something is fundamentally broken,” she said.
“This means that U.N. Women has the potential to be a real game changer and not another bureaucratic U.N. agency,” she added.
“The fact that women had to work so hard to even create U.N. Women – UNIFEM was always considered a baby, or a stepchild of the U.N., compared to agencies like the UNDP [U.N. Development Programme] and UNFPA [U.N. Population Fund] – means that now that we have it, we shouldn’t settle. This is a critical time to ask, what is it we can contribute? What is it we can really change?” Dutt asked.
Mary Scott, the president of the National Council of the Women of Canada (NCWC), pointed out that by far the most integral part of CSW were the side-events, organised by and comprising of grassroots women’s leaders and activists, which took place parallel to the illustrious events at the U.N. headquarters.
“But the parallel events educate other NGOs, not government delegations,” Scott told IPS. “The high-level consultations are primarily controlled by governments, and may or may not consider the views of grassroots leaders. They are closed sessions.”
This concern was echoed by hundreds of female activists across the world, who convened at countless workshops and sessions over the last two weeks, to express concerns and critiques of U.N. Women and CSW for excluding local leaders, workers and victims in the formulation of their agenda and policies.
“The absence of Aboriginal women from Canada in the official Canadian delegation really struck me,” Scott told IPS. “The issues facing our Aboriginal sisters in Canada have been documented in many U.N. reports, including CEDAW [the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women].”
“In February 2009 Canada was told it’s not doing enough in areas like aboriginal rights, violence against women, poverty and racism by the U.N. Human Rights Council,” Scott added
“In November 2008, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women asked Canada to report back in one year on steps taken to address inadequate social assistance rates across the country and the failure of law enforcement agencies to deal with the disappearance and murder of Aboriginal women and girls,” she said.
“CEDAW recommended that Canada develop a specific and integrated plan for addressing the particular conditions affecting Aboriginal women, both on and off reserves, including poverty, poor health, inadequate housing low school-completion rates, low employment rates, low income and high rates of violence.”
“We have yet to see a plan that addresses these issues. Such a plan must be developed with the Aboriginal women playing a key role, with groups such as the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC),” she concluded.
Discussing the challenges for U.N. Women at a side-event last Saturday, Frances Kissling, a visiting scholar from the University of Pennsylvania, stressed that the 21st century must see the silencing of voices of religious fundamentalists in the U.N., who have severely undermined conversations on women’s emancipation.
“The Holy See has tried for years to take the word ‘empowerment’ out of the resolution on the Status of Women. IF U.N. Women is to be a transformative agency, we should have developed by now the capacity to plan a meeting that cannot be derailed by people who do not agree with the core agenda of that meeting,” she said.
Regardless of these reservations, U.N. Women presents an enormous opportunity for change and many experts believe that it must not be crippled by premature criticism.
“I do believe that U.N. Women can be in a leadership role that operates within the constraints of an intergovernmental agency,” Dutt told IPS.
“Whether or not [U.N. Women's inaugural executive director] Michele Bachelet is able to translate the power of her position into solid action is something that remains to be seen – but there is an opportunity right now that we must seize, and support,” she concluded.
*This article forms part of IPS coverage for International Women’s Day, Mar. 8, whose theme this year is “Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women”.
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