Why the UN Commission on the Status of Women Matters
My 21st century experience of feminism and women’s issues has evolved as I have gained elder status (soon to be 67 in March) and a deeper awareness of women’s and children’s lives in global communities beyond the USA. I applied to be appointed by then Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori as part of a 20-person delegation to represent the Episcopal Church, which has official status as a member of the UN’s Economic and Social Council, to the UN Commission on the Status of Women’s 59th (UNCSW59) annual gathering in March 2015 in New York City. I hoped to learn the issues, represent my church, and connect with women from around the globe, and I was not disappointed.
It had been 20 years since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 in Beijing, when then first lady Hilary Clinton said, “. . . human rights are women's rights. . . . And women's rights are human rights.” As I studied the Beijing Declaration, I could see its important elements echoed in the Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), which were subsequently superseded by the Sustainable Development Goals of September 2015 that also track the work done at UNCSW59.
My experience as a delegate turned out to be a journey of self-awareness and renewed passion for championing women’s and children’s rights. When I left New York at the end of 12 intense days of participation, I felt humbled and impatient. I was in awe, listening to the stories told by my global sisters of all ages about their heroic stands for gender equality, women’s empowerment, and women and girls victimized in human trafficking and in war-torn villages. Many of my global sisters face considerable social and cultural pressures, including physical abuse and violence, while standing up for the rights of women and girls. Being with UN women from around the world reminded me that I came of age in the mid-1960s as part of the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements. I couldn’t wait to get home to continue the work of sharing our stories and lobbying for gender equality.
I have long felt the sting of rebuke in facts about the USA that point to a mean-spiritedness and gender inequality unbecoming a developed country – facts such as:
- We have fallen into the 74th percentile of gender equity worldwide, ranking 28th behind Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Ireland who were the top five, and even behind Rwanda and the Philippines at sixth and seventh, respectively.1
- The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (aka CEDAW), adopted by the United Nations in 1979, is an international bill of rights for women, which all but seven member states of the UN have signed. The non-signatories? – Palau, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tonga, and the United States.2 This should not be surprising when considered in the context of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which failed to garner its needed ratification by 38 states after passage in both houses of Congress in 1972.3 We are still waiting.
- Worldwide, 188 countries guarantee paid leave for mothers of newborns, with the exception of nine nations, which include the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Suriname, Tonga, and the United States.4 It’s not like we can not have children if humanity is to survive!
- The National Committee on Pay Equity reports that based on median earnings of all full-time, year-round workers in the USA, in 2014 women earned $39,621 or 78.6% of the $50,383 that men earned. The statistics for women of color are even more dire: African American women earned $33,533 or 66.6% of men, and Latina women earned $30,293 or 60.1%. The Census Bureau is quoted, “The female-to-male earnings ratio has not shown a statistically significant annual increase since 2007.”5
- Women elected to serve in national parliaments placed the USA in 72nd place out of 139 rankings (including almost 50 ties), behind Uganda, Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, China, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.6
Within the very first day of orientation at UNCSW59, I heard named the wide gap between the aspiration of various nations to accord women and girls gender equality with men and boys as evidenced by legislation enacted by the nations, compared to the actuality of how those laws are implemented and enforced. UNCSW is not all flowers and cake, but is about truth and reality, from which the world’s women do not shy away. The Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, minced no words when she said, “Implementation has been weak” and that there has been a collective failure among the member states. She pointed out that even in Iceland, considered the most advanced nation democratically and in terms of gender equity, and which has significant laws addressing violence against women, statistics still show that one in three Icelandic women gets beaten by a man.
Director Phumzile also called out the tokenism that exists in the quest for gender equality, citing the need to overcome stereotypes. Women don’t get hired or are passed over for promotions when there is a stereotype that women will be unreliable workers, because they put their children and families before their work responsibilities. Women are not paid the same wages as men, because there is a stereotype that women aren’t the breadwinners in their families. I, as a long-time anti-racism trainer, could relate to the idea of stereotypes causing impediments to progress in seeking gender equality.
At UNCSW59 I also heard repeatedly how wrong it is to use religion as an excuse for subjugation and violence against women and girls and how that practice must be stopped by all religions. It was striking to hear this admonition from women of many faiths and to be in solidarity with global women fighting the same evils in their country contexts.
In April 2015, I had the opportunity to keynote an interfaith gathering of over a hundred people from numerous faith traditions in Mid-Michigan to urge them to be proactive in holding conversations within and across their faith communities to address issues like stereotypes, inheritance laws, birth registration, and unpaid caretaking, and how these issues foster gender inequities. Each of us can learn to deconstruct and parse issues of equity, and we can raise our consciousness and that of our faith communities. We can enter the public conversations on gender equity, support equity legislation, and hold our elected officials accountable for implementation of equity laws.
For an individual woman (or man) participation in UNCSW is an exhilarating and cathartic experience. There is something exciting about being in the company of 10-12,000 people who care deeply about gender equality and women’s empowerment and who are doing something about the issues in their own countries. There is something cathartic about hearing and discussing issues of vital importance from people involved directly in finding solutions and seeing how scalable and replicable their work can be in other contexts. There is something personally transformational about the hope and energy that other people’s good works and passionate thoughts engender in one’s self. I especially commend applying to become part of a future UNCSW delegation to anyone who is seeking renewal and new energy after a lifetime of being a faithful disciple and helpful leader. UNCSW will both change and affirm you and your purpose.
Lelanda Lee is a lay leader from the Diocese of Colorado. She served on the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council (2009-2015) and as Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Advocacy and Networking for Mission (2012-2015). An EfM (Education for Ministry) 1999 graduate, she blogs for Emerging Voices on Patheos.com and at her blog What a Cup of Tea.
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