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Reflections on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) 2018

I returned home, having spent a fortnight participating in the United Nations Commission on Status of Women (62nd) as a member of the YWCA Australia delegation. In reflecting on the experience now, I feel an affinity with Dorothy Gale as she wakes from her adventure in the Land of Oz.

There is a surrealism as I try to focus on just one learning at a time, because the experience was so stimulating on every level. There were vibrant conversations which energized, and events which offered fresh perspectives. There were warm and brilliant faces and there were spontaneous meetings of kindred spirits. There was snow, there were peanut butter cups, there were frozen sidewalks and at the end of it all, there was Broadway.

If I were to capture just three powerful moments from within this montage of CSW62, they might include the following:

1) Leaning into the warmth and wisdom of Australia’s first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, June Oscar AO, who sat alongside Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins and Ambassador Sharman Stone for a fabulous Australian Government CSW62 Side Event entitled: The role of the Australian Human Rights Commission in advancing the human rights of women and girls.

Here is an extract from Commissioner Oscar’s incisive words:

“I feel the enormous weight of the responsibility as the first woman in this position because it has been a very long time since the voices of indigenous women and girls were acknowledged as a collective in our country. Indigenous women’s voices have been absent from the political landscape for too long… and yet we have so many incredible indigenous women achieving so much for all of us in our country.”

In the course of the session, Commissioner Oscar highlighted a number of priorities for us to attend to in Australia, saying:

“It is important for us to work in a supportive way with Government, informing and assisting and guiding Government to get it right. The engagement of indigenous people, in policy reform and policy design is so important. There is a level of questioning and sharing of understanding that I think is critical in terms of the protection of indigenous rights.”

2) Reflecting on the power of strong, inclusive leadership from the top with the Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka as part of the UN CSW62 Side Event titled ‘System-wide strategy on gender parity: How to walk the talk’. This was an event so popular that it was (squeezy) standing room only.
In asserting the ‘single most important driver within UN strategy is leadership’, Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka cut straight to the heart with some simple facts:

..” The UN is 72 years old, and the top of the UN management is now 50/50.” (Applause). “We achieved this in one year.” (Pause). One year is all that it took. It was due to the determination of the Secretary General… because, when people who have authority to make a difference use that authority, you are able to drive change quicker. You are able to set the tone”.

Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka went on to appreciate some practical challenges involved in ‘walking the walk’ in the context of gender diversity, rather than merely ‘talking the talk’:

“Of course you will always hear ‘we can’t find senior women! We can’t find women who qualify for the positions’. So we will work together to make sure that there will always be a pipeline.”

Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka also explained the need for layers of support from each of the agencies which support the work of the United Nations, highlighting that there needs to be very specific training provided for HR managers. This is because, she said, “HR managers are the gatekeepers’ to the issue and need particular training wherever they have developed a tolerance for gender inequality. “They see it all the time,” she explained.

3) Being awakened to the brutal reality of gendered violence in South Sudan by Dr Mary Ellsberg of The Global Women’s Institute. Dr Ellsberg was a panellist in a UN Side Event called ‘Addressing Violence Against and Empowering Adolescent Girls’, chaired by former Australian Ambassador for Women and Girls and Chair of Our Watch, Natasha Stott-Despoja.

Speaking to her qualitative interviews with men and women throughout South Sudan, Dr Ellsberg summarised the data by stating “If you are born a girl, you are born a problem.”

In the course of Dr Ellberg’s work, she asked asked women aged 15+ if they had experienced sexual violence. Horrifyingly, approximately a third indicated she had experienced rape, with more than 40% of these participants indicating that they had been raped more than once.

Dr Ellsberg explained a hugely problematic aspect of the sexual violence in war-torn regions is that peacekeepers don’t have a mandate to administer justice. This only increases the level of vulnerability experienced by young girls and women, so much so that Dr Ellsberg concludes in her work “the conflict is taking place over the bodies of adolescent girls.”

Also because of conflict in the region, Dr Ellsberg explained, many men have lost their cows. This means that men will rape or abduct women to take as wives- because they cannot afford to pay for one.

“It all comes back to the cows,” Dr Ellsberg said.

Indeed, the kaleidoscope of global learnings and wisdom arising from the the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, CSW62 must serve as a call to action for each of us within our respective frameworks. Whilst there were themes, stories and experiences that were particularly harrowing to comprehend, as Patricia Easteal says ‘if we bring the fungus into the light, it will not grow.’

In this context, the CSW was illuminating- and our work must continue to be so.