I was in New York to attend the 57th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The priority theme this year was Prevention and Elimination of Violence to Women and Girls (VAWG). This was in response to the fact that almost 70 per cent of the world’s women have suffered some form of violence.
Representatives of Governments came to report on their progress to advance the rights of women and girls and to report on their implementation of the commitments they’d made under the Beijing Platform For Action (PFA) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The final document from CSW is usually an Outcomes document although there’s been no such agreed document from the last two sessions. We were hopeful this year of having an Outcomes document, although of course it was better to have no document than one that diminished the gains secured.
A large NGO contingent made the trek to CSW to hold governments’ accountable for the rights of women and girls globally. We came to demand that governments do more to ensure the rights of women and girls to be safe and secure and for the perpetrators of violence to be held to account. We came to seek campaigns to engage men and boys as advocates to end violence against women. We came to demand that women and girls be supported to have their views and voices heard and to live their lives free of violence including domestic violence, trafficking, torture, harassment, rape and slavery.
Inside the UN, the official proceedings for the Commission were taking place. Already the Vatican was seeking to reverse language in the draft Outcomes document that was aimed at securing and sustaining women’s sexual and reproductive rights without religion or culture being an excuse to prevent these rights. Here the Holy See was joined by countries including Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Bangladesh, Yemen and Malta. Meanwhile, Norway’s Ministerial representative provided a spirited rebuke of such attempts by stating unequivocally that
“violence against women is a global disgrace. Violence against women is not about culture, not about religion, it is about power, inequality and lack of political will. Let us start at the top, with our own political leaders, mainly men, and demand action.”
More than 6,000 NGOS registered to attend this 57th Session however each NGO only received two passes to enter the UN building and so most NGO representatives got to hear little of the official UN proceedings. Opposite the UN building, at the UN Church Center, and in many nearby buildings, were the parallel NGO sessions where the majority of NGO representatives presented and attended sessions.
Here we spoke truth to power. Women told of their accounts of rape, beheadings of women human rights defenders; girls being trafficked, dowry acid burning, young women being abused in refugee camps and war zones, women imprisoned for fleeing forced marriage and women killed for honor and then passed off as suicides.
In the South Pacific, 3.5 million women out of a population of 10 million suffer gender based violence in their lifetime. We heard that people are afraid of the word sex in parts of the Pacific Islands and so it’s hard to get traction on sexual and reproductive health and rights for women. In Papua New Guinea, safety and security for girls and women is almost nonexistent. This in a country where a woman was recently stripped, tortured and torched as a sorcerer in front of school children. A young woman from Chuuk, in the Federated States of Micronesia, told us that 75 percent of the population here was under 30 and the policies developed needed to recognize this reality. This is the time to get serious in the text at CSW57, said one woman – “We refuse to go backwards, we are going forward. We need negotiators with fire in their eyes.”
In another session on Women and the Egyptian Revolution we heard from a panel of women who were creating a gender sensitive archive of the revolution. They spoke about the importance of including fragments of stories that feature the voices of minorities. As one woman said, “In our revolutions these fragments include personal testimonies and songs captured by citizen journalists.
” Another woman added that “power is found in the way revolutionary material is archived; testimonies are never free flowing – the very process of narration guides historical meaning; we are documenting history and its very dynamic.”
We heard from women on this panel that gender based violence is one of the most overlooked issues in conflict situations; we don’t often find the stories of sexual violence that women experience in revolution. One young woman told us of being sexually violated by revolutionaries.
“The revolution was our main entry to activism; I thought I was in a protected space in Tahir Square but I wasn’t, I was separated from my friend and we were each surrounded by hundreds of men who stripped us naked and finger raped us; my friend and I were subject to both political violence and sexual violence. This was an attempt to take away our political participation as well as to violate our bodies. This attempt to silence us has failed. I will not be silent.”
Another woman on this panel said
“We are talking about new weapons of war against female citizen journalists, who seek to be part of the political change in Egypt. We have to keep our hands together for the courage of all the girls and women who have gone public about these sexual assaults. It needs the courage of one girl or woman to go public for a different revolution.”
At a session on violence against women and intersections with the environment we heard from women who had seen the results of contaminated water from mining leading to miscarriages, abortions, malformations and child mortality.
One woman spoke of the destruction of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity resulting in loss of livelihoods for women and the devastation of food sovereignty rendering food unusable for food production. We heard of armed men engaged in land grabbing and sexual violence to reclaim land, and of women who were forced to migrate to cities where a lack of jobs resulted in some ending up as prostitutes. In other situations, death threats to families resulted in men being killed and women becoming widows and new heads of households with quadruple burdens.
Other women spoke of land restitution programs that didn’t have built-in safeguards for women and where it’s often difficult for them to prove that they once lived there, and of increased impoverishment in rural areas resulting in increased domestic violence. One woman asked that the ‘green economy’ terminology claimed by the corporate sector be replaced by what was valued by women – “we want humanitarian and biodiversity zones.” We heard of women leaders in these struggles being murdered or having disappeared, including Sandra Viviana Cuellar Gallega, 26 years, an environmental activist who has been missing for two years from Cali, Colombia.
Women spoke of the need for sustainable development – the kind that takes into account the needs of local communities and holds polluters accountable. As one woman said, “We cannot separate our bodies from structures and our rights from development; we cannot separate out sexual and reproductive health and rights from the political economy.”
She went on to say that she came from the South Pacific which comprised 22 states and territories spread across one third of the earth’s surface – from 4 million people in PNG to a few thousand in micro states. There was an existential threat to Pacific Island states: some of these islands won’t be here in a few years.
In the Pacific, women face a triple crisis: finance; food and water; militarization; in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, rental prices are higher than in Manhattan due to international development consultants, transnational industries and extractive industries moving in. Representatives from transnational and extractive industries are setting up in peoples’ homes which have practical impacts on the lives of women and their families.
The Pacific has the lowest representation of women in national parliaments – currently at 2.5% representation. Women’s contributions aren’t being recognized while they’re dealing with the consequences of transnational corporations whose motivation is profit. As one panelist said “People ask, where are the women? The women are there but they are exhausted.”
Another woman said “There is mining throughout the Pacific, with $25-30 billion in income generated annually and yet the flow on impact on women – rape, sexually transmitted infections and sexual violence – isn’t addressed. Two out of three women and girls in the Pacific experience some form of violence in their lifetime. In Papua New Guinea, excess bride prices are being asked due to the transnational corporations paying local men for land and the men having the money to buy girls and young women. One woman told us that girls as young as 10 are now being bought by local men as brides, some bought by men working for transnational corporations and multilateral agencies.
We heard from another woman from the Pacific that “It is about an enforced economic code that weighs heavily on the bodies of women and girls. There is a small arms trade happening across Papua New Guinea where women and girls are heavily exposed. Women are practicing many forms of resistance in the Pacific, as they are in the Amazon, The Congo and Philippines – above and below strategies and those moving between. We heard how important it was, in this CSW 57 text, to talk about addressing economic and structural violence, restoring sexual and reproductive health and rights and designing development policies with women at the center.
In another forum, there was an important conversation about women’s organizations and corporate partnerships. This had become an increasingly prevalent theme as the focus on girls and women had continued to ratchet up a new level of engagement by the private sector. Walmart Foundation was investing millions of dollars in partnerships focused on women, while Coca Cola was aligning women’s empowerment with women’s entrepreneurship, and by extension women entrepreneurs in developing countries selling Coca Cola. Exxon Mobil Foundation was courting women in countries where the company had active mining leases, including women whom I’d met in Papua New Guinea.
Board members and staff of many women’s organizations were engaged in an ongoing dialogue over whether to accept money from the corporate sector or not.
Personally, I felt there was a big difference between a major corporation approaching an NGO, or a group of NGOs, and saying “we realize we’ve got to change our business practices that are proving to be detrimental (environmentally, in relation to labor practices, in terms of equity) and we’d like to work with you in order to help us change the way we work”— as compared to a corporation with questionable practices providing large scale funding to an NGO on the basis of business as usual and in a way that further legitimized its approach.
Of course, I was aware of the complexity of the situation. “There is no such thing as clean money,” said one woman. “Would you take money from an individual donor who had earned her money from Chevron or Exxon or Walmart?” I thought that was a very different situation to affirming a corporation by aligning with them as a partner by accepting their funding. “What about the major financial institutions like Goldman Sachs and Barclays and HSBC – would you take money from those companies? I didn’t have answers to some of these questions and yet neither did I think it helpful to unilaterally adopt the approach of “we can do more good by working on the inside than the outside” which one international NGO justified as the rationale for taking money from tobacco companies and alcohol companies and from many pharmaceutical companies.
It seemed that it would be worthwhile for a coalition of NGOs and women’s rights organizations to agree on some assumptions, criteria and standards that could be adopted in relation to such partnerships and with a clear rationale for how and why such criteria had been formed. It seemed equally obvious that an informed global citizen movement and citizen journalists could be asking critical questions of the NGOs they were thinking about supporting and funding, so that they understood the rationale and basis for the partnerships formed. This, while continuing to advocate for changes to those companies that continued to adopt exploitative environmental and labor practices.
I realized that different women’s organizations in different countries would likely make very different decisions. “We need the money to stay afloat and we’ll take the money from any company that offers to support us,” said a woman from one women’s organization in Asia. “We could have done with the amazing amount of money offered to us, however, when we talked to the women in rural areas we learnt how much their livelihoods were being affected by this company’s investment practices and we couldn’t take the money. It would have canceled out the work we were doing and been a betrayal of those women who trust us to make the right decisions,” said a woman from a Latin American country.
I also don’t want to be misunderstood in what I’m saying. I think it’s vital that NGOs and women’s rights organizations engage with corporations to influence gender inclusive approaches to policy and programming decisions and to adopt gender budgeting accountabilities. It’s only by engaging in a wider movement beyond the women’s movement that the influence will be deep enough to change the equation and trajectory as far as advancing women’s and girls’ human rights. That said, it can’t be corporations setting the agenda and defining the vision of what women’s empowerment means. Rather, I would hope that corporations could sign on to a gender pact that defines rights and responsibilities that will move us toward a world where women and girls assume their full human rights and have the freedom, confidence and security to realize their potential. I would hope that women’s organizations would claim their own power and constituencies globally and assume the leadership and citizen influence here rather than responding to an agenda set by others.
I left New York in a heavy snowstorm and arrived back in San Francisco to a blue-sky Friday evening and an enchanted weekend. On Saturday I walked along Sausalito’s back lanes feeling light and happy. Down by the water were sections of land that had become communal vegetable gardens for the families living on houseboats.
Next to rows and rows of hand painted letterboxes were colorful signs, masks, totems and dream catchers in amongst the plots of land carefully planted out with seeds and shrubs. In other areas were shade houses and makeshift greenhouses as hot spaces for wild foods and fruits. The messy gorgeousness of it all made me smile – it reminded me of Piggy Lane in the Adelaide Hills and of my late friend Charles’ own studio space with its garden run amok and a duck pond that I loved.
I expected any minute to see Paul Hawken make an appearance. I knew he lived in Sausalito and his book, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World, and, more recently, The Natural Capital Institute and wiser.org, both of which he founded, continue to inspire me. Or perhaps I’d see Bill McKibben, whom I’d heard speak at the 2012 Bioneers Conference and whose writing and 350.org was sparking the global eco-activism needed for real traction in relation to environmental sustainability and climate change action.
Instead I saw a woman, in her late 70s, maybe early 80s, climb down from her houseboat and lower herself into a kayak on the water. I walked closer to watch her as she gathered her paddles and straightened her craft. She paddled toward me as she began to turn the kayak toward the bay. “Great day to be on the water,” she said, lifting her arm in greeting. I saw the red slogan on her t-shirt as she spoke: ‘Old Woman Rising’, and I pumped my own arm in a cheer as she headed out and made rapid strokes on the waves.
It is this belief in a power larger than myself and other than myself, which allows me to venture into the unknown and even the unknowable. Maya Angelou
Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn. Harriet Beecher Stowe