A Young Person’s Experience of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)
Please let me introduce to you Jenny Raw, from the United Kingdom, who worked at our Daughters of Charity NGO Office in New York for one month. We were truly pleased to have her with us and she made the best possible use of her experience. If you or somebody you know would like to do a placement at the UN, we would be very happy to consider it. –Sr. Catherine Prendergast, DC
In March 2018, I had the privilege of attending the 62nd Commission on the Status of Women with the Daughters of Charity in New York.
It knew it would be a wonderful opportunity, learning about the work of the Daughters at the UN during the largest international women’s conference in the world, but I was still apprehensive before I arrived. Spending a month in New York City thousands of miles from my home in the UK, was an exciting, but daunting, prospect. Yet as soon as I stepped off the plane and navigated the labyrinth of linear streets in an iconic yellow taxi, the sisters welcomed me with open arms and as the jetlag faded away, so did all my apprehension. I knew it would be a great opportunity, but I could never have known what a fantastic and transformative month lay ahead of me.
To start, I was overwhelmed by the grandness of it all; the skyscrapers, beeping horns, exhaust fumes, the perfect contrast of the gentle beauty of Central Park with the angular glamour of Manhattan’s skyline. I didn’t know what to expect from this overwhelming city as I blurred into its myriad of linear streets. What ensued was one of the best months of my life – the Sisters could not have made me feel more welcome. I was given the opportunity to meet, and learn from, inspirational women from all corners of the globe, learn about the functioning of the UN and the role of Civil Society within it and most of all, listen to others and try and put myself in their shoes. It was an opportunity I will always be grateful for and an experience which changed my perception on the world around me. With the background of this remarkable city, we prepared for the 62nd Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations Head Quarters and I could hardly wait for it to begin.
It is challenging to articulate exactly how my experience at CSW was so life-changing and so wonderfully unique. The exact euphoric feeling I felt when sitting in a room with women and men I have never met before, united by a passion to help those we may never meet, was not like anything I had experienced before. Yet the challenge of articulating these experiences is the premise of the entire CSW experience. As somebody who has been fortunate enough to grow up with a supportive family and a great education, I worry that by writing about my CSW experience, I will only diminish the power of others’ experiences. Yet it is crucial that we can put into words the experiences we share, because only then can we make real change in the agreed conclusions. The battle over altering nuanced language takes place over a two week period, and this year over 4000 NGOs took up the challenge to have their voices heard, each representing some of the most marginalised communities in the hope that ultimately, no one will be left behind.
Sometimes the role of civil society at the UN is questioned, indeed, the effectiveness of the UN as an institution is a constant source of debate. The endless indecision about the semantic difference between “rural women” and “women and girls living in rural areas,” the contention about the adjective “harmful” or the inclusion of “the girl child” can sometimes seem a little petty. The question arises – do words really matter, shouldn’t we just get on with making change? My experience of CSW was full of contradictions and paradoxes. I felt uplifted by the atmosphere of support and solidarity, inspired by the community of activists, humbled by the courage of women and girls telling their stories of suffering – but all the time crestfallen by the reality that we are 85 years away from achieving the SDG relating to girls’ education. I was winded by the fact that 12 million girls marry under the age of 18 every year and, most of all, shocked that these facts are accepted as normal by so many people, especially those in power.
However, my time at CSW taught me that words do matter. Every conversation held at CSW, whether it be in the General Assembly, smallest side room or elevator in the Church Centre, demonstrated the power of storytelling. The MeToo movement has taught us that sharing our stories is empowering and that words lead to actions for change. If the UN did nothing but facilitate these conversations, I would say it is still a valuable tool.
This wasn’t always my perception. When I arrived at CSW and heard that 650 million children are married right now – this did little to make me feel more positive, instead, I wondered if advocacy really makes a difference. However, as the week progressed and I heard more stories, I stopped feeling disheartened and began to feel inspired. I wasn’t inspired in spite of the devastating stories I heard about human trafficking, gender stereotyping, child marriage and FGM. Rather, I was inspired because of these stories. The women who stand up at CSW and speak about their traumatic experiences aren’t victims, and they aren’t afraid of the magnitude of the problems women and girls face. They are survivors. Courageous and ready to take on the world, our choice is whether to join them. There is little I have ever found more humbling.
It’s those moments that I will never forget. Moments when, in the queue for a coffee in the Vienna Café, I saw before my eyes women and girls sharing their experiences, finding new ways to work together for change. When you hear these stories, first hand, you are reminded what exactly it is we are all working for. CSW allows us to take a pause. To sit, and listen, and take note from women working at the grassroots. To hear their experiences and have some time for self-reflection, to consider what we are doing every day in our own lives to make change, small or large. In a sea of High Level Political Forums, subcommittees and working groups, sometimes the time to reflect on what exactly we are working for can be lost. So, sometimes, it all comes down to one person speaking from the heart to change a decision maker’s mind and influence policy. As civil society, surely it is our role to facilitate those discussions. In the words of X we are “planting the seeds for trees which we might never see grow.”
Listening to women from around the world also reminded me of how wonderfully diverse our world really is. Globalisation and increased transnationalism means that borders often seem more fluid than ever, even despite the lingering question of the position of state sovereignty in the modern world. Within the framework of the universal SDGs we are often led to assume that we can find universal solutions to the worlds’ problems. Yet by hearing about the diverse experiences women face at CSW, I was reminded that we instead require diverse solutions. Human Trafficking works differently in India, Burkina Faso, the UK and the USA, even if the traumatic effects it inflicts on its victims are similar. CSW reminded me that whilst we should try to make everyone equal, this does not mean making everyone the same. When we listen to people at the grassroots, we remember that equality looks different to everyone.
This can only happen by working collaboratively. It was disheartening that at the beginning of many powerful side events, the chair would begin by stating “I hope I’m not preaching to the converted.” It’s powerful to allow civil society to meet and hold discussions but the audience does perhaps need to be more representative. In a time when the space for civil society is shrinking it is more crucial than ever to have the private sector, civil society, governments, UN representatives and most crucially those who experience the suffering first hand, all together, around the same table. If the current table isn’t big enough to accommodate us all, then we need a bigger table. It is crucial to leave no one behind in the discussions which design policies in order to leave no one behind in implementation. Rural women and girls make up ¼ of the world’s population, yet are some of the most underrepresented communities today. As I heard in a particularly inspirational side event hosted by The Hunger Project Mexico, “rural women must not just be participants in public policy to eradicate food insecurity, but be protagonists in its design.”
Leaving CSW, we all feel a new incentive to drive change – we’ve said “Time’sUp.” we’ve listened to each other, and now is the time to start the real work at home with a new urgency.
But rather than feeling negative and overwhelmed by the challenges that lie ahead – I think CSW attendees feel inspired. I hope we can share that inspiration. Knowing we have a community of activists around us is a powerful tool. Above all, we know that even if every attendee empowered one woman and one girl, together, we could make a big difference. I would like to say a heartfelt thank you to the Vincentian family for giving me an opportunity which inspired me to make the change I want to see in the world around me.