I have written previously about my experiences at the 60th Commission on the Status of Women held recently at the UN in New York. It was a bucket-list opportunity to see governments and civil society navigate the international system. I wanted to be a fly on the wall, a sponge, soaking up everything I could, taking full advantage to learn about gender, international advocacy and impactful, place-based programs on the ground that were making a real difference in the lives of women. I wanted to hear about financing, economic empowerment, leadership, sustainability, evaluation all through a gender lens. I heard about wellness, sexual rights, forced marriage, disability, female genital mutilation, intimate partner violence. I also learnt about models of best practice, examples of what works and what we need to do better. Out of the 2 week intense experience, I came to understand some fundamental elements of international advocacy:
- The 3rd world is still underrepresented. At many of the sessions I attended, there were only a few brave souls who declared themselves to be such representatives, often to put their minority views across in a space where developed countries clearly maintained the agenda.
- Cultural assumptions are entirely relative and once you recognise them, you wonder how you haven’t seen them there before. How can one discuss issues of women’s economic empowerment for example, when a society has not even recognised the right of a women to be mistress of her own destiny? How can there be progress in relation to sexual and reproductive rights, gendered identity, when the notion of the family is fixed? How can there be discussion of parity in leadership, when women aren’t allowed to be seen in public without their husbands? The assumptions we make around the thresholds that different countries are starting from in the process of negotiation are entirely subjective.
- Know the importance of specific language. A focus of the intergovernmental discussions to reach final conclusions was around specific terminology- about maintaining language achieved in earlier commissions and other forums, rather than specifically progressing various clauses. Many times, success was maintaining status quo rather than substantive progress. Language in international advocacy is key, and the meaning of terms such as equality, equity, decent work, maternal health is specific and deliberate.
- The higher the level of negotiation, the less substantive it is – the high level panels I attended were unremarkable for the amount of discussion, interaction and resolution that actually occurred. While they were important platforms for countries to make statements or ask questions, these were not interactive- much like parliament question time, and did not facilitate constructive debate, a much needed avenue for gender parity to occur.
However, there were a number of other, lighter things that I took away from this entirely overwhelming 2 week conference and negotiation. There were moments of wonderment, laughter and connectedness as I got to know the amazing women I was surrounded by:
- The earphones on the side of the chairs in the General Assembly are for translations as well as volume
- Make sure you have the right ticket for the event that is actually scheduled in the room you have been lining up for over the prior 30 minutes
- The toilets are never near anywhere you are
- Have a business card that actually reflects how you want to brand yourself
- Make time to get through security
- Only 10 people fit in a lift
- Make sure you have food with you or be prepared to wait…for a very long time
- Selfie culture is rife
- People seem to be able to follow the negotiations/discussions, and type across numerous devices simultaneously
- There are frequent cat fights for the best seats
- The security guards are totally overwhelmed by pushy women trying to get to those best seats
- Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is awesome
- You never know who you are sitting next to until you start to talk to them
- You can get pizza delivered to the UN at all hours of the night
- Slam poetry is a legitimate form of advocacy
Who would’ve thought?
Unfortunately, it seems that we are at least 100 years away from gender parity, despite the inspiring rhetoric of the Session. As Climbing Poetree, the slam poets suggest: “Possibility is as wide as the space we create to hold it”.