NOTE: This post was written by Elaina Estrin, one of the School of Diplomacy’s two UN Youth Representatives. Elaina is a student majoring in Diplomacy and International Relations and Modern Languages. Elaina’s focus is on international organizations and post conflict state building. She is fluent in English and Russian and she will be continuing her Arabic language studies in Muscat, Oman this upcoming summer. Elaina has interned with the office of Senator Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) and taught English in Petrozavodsk, Russia. She has also worked closely with a DC based consulting firm called Field Strategies. Currently she is the head of Public Relations of SHU’s Slavic Club and Secretary for SHU’s International Law Society.
Women’s rights, the advancement of women, pay equality, women’s health; these are all phrases we have been hearing in the international arena for over a decade and while the advancements we have achieved are phenomenal, they are not enough. From March 9th to March 20th, the UN held the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW59). The energy and concord I experienced at the CSW59 was unlike any other event I have ever been to at the UN. However in the past decade, feminist has become pitted as a synonym for “man hater” rather than “freedom fighter.” This has caused a fear of reprisals, a lack of action from both men and women, inadequate resources, and insufficient political will to move the agenda forward.
Before we can advance women’s rights in the workplace and at home, we must assure that women have access to doctors, medicine, and safety. A CSW59 event about women in conflict areas discussed how women are often the victims in countries; they are taken as sex slaves, used to obtain leverage over men, forced into marriage, denied food, education and opportunity. Women cannot progress in a society where prostitution, child marriage, and rape are ignored. Violence against women on university campuses is increasing in the US and Canada, In India girls 9 – 13 years of age are forced to have sex with 8 – 10 men per night for 4 – 5 years. This is obviously an obstacle in advancing equality among men and women; it perpetuates cycles of violence, poverty, and illiteracy. This event showed how informing the youth – both girls and boys – will create new generations of adults who understand the importance of equality and advancing the rights of women in conflict areas. These educated individuals can then create institutions that advance ideologies of equality.
Many victims of human trafficking are subject to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which is another obstacle in the improvement of women’s rights. FGM is a common tradition in the Middle East and part of Africa that either completely or partially removes the female genitals to eliminate women’s sexual feelings. This is a complex and culturally sensitive issue because women and girls from areas that practice FGM feel inadequate if they do not go through this procedure; as if they are not truly a woman without it. The results of the procedure include serious health illnesses, including infection, infertility, and even death due to severe loss of blood. Precisely why institutions like the UN, and human rights NGO’s are necessary to help women and men in these societies understand the health risks that accompany FGM. FGM is not what makes these girls women, but rather it is what stunts their growth as a human. The CSW59 organized panels, side events, and parallel events of the issue of FGM because of the importance in creating a dialogue and informing people about this custom.
The battle to secure women’s health is a lengthy process where norms have to be rewritten, but the battle for equality does not end with women’s health. There is still an inequality that must be addressed: that inequality is equal pay. In many countries, the underlying cause for this is the lack of a proper education system. In many developing countries, both boys and girls are often taken out of school before they reach secondary school because it is too expensive to keep kids in school. However, these countries also tend to promote the notion that women should be the primary caregivers; meaning staying home to raise children, clean the house, and cook food. This is why 70% of secondary school dropouts are girls. In these conditions, women’s basic human rights are violated. For example, in the Philippines, divorce does not exist; women have little options other than staying with their, often abusive, husbands and having no opportunities for personal advancement. One of the panelists during a CSW59 side-event gave the advice that women should use boycotting to achieve gender equality. She discussed how brands supplied by sweatshops or unsafe work environments for women, or degrading media should be boycotted as part of the movement to achieve gender equality.
Even countries that have made enormous strides in promoting women’s rights have not stepped up to implementing equal pay. Another side event about the admirable women’s movement from Iceland titled “Cool Feminism: Exploring Ideas from the North” discussed what plausible actions can be taken to move towards equality. Some of the ideas included teaching gender equality early on in schools, creating mentor programs, creating a dialogue with governments, involving men in the fight for equality and hosting forums with politicians, private sector, unions, and religious leaders. Iceland has the highest women’s workforce participation in the world and parental leave has also been critical to this achievement. Yet women in Iceland still earn an average of 19.9% less than their male counterparts.
This is not because the agenda for gender equality is uninspiring or unattainable, it is because of the lack of accountability. At the opening session, Lydia Alpizar, Executive Director of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, expressed her concern for lack of action, funding, and political will to achieve sustainable women’s rights worldwide. Much of this is because the Beijing 20 does not hold the 189 states that adopted the declaration responsible to implement changes. The language is also vague giving states the ability to stall the process of change and have no repercussions. Changing the way than men and women view each other and interact in societies may be considered a challenging goal, but at the CSW59, all of the amazing men and women who came out to show their support, speak on behalf of their organizations, and help people all around the world to move closer to that goal of equality brings an overwhelming amount of hope into this fight.