Column: Standing up for rights of women across the world
It was a cold and windy Friday when I arrived in New York City on March 1 to attend the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations. This year’s theme was Ending Violence Against Women and Girls.
I was delighted to see there was no snow in the city. This was the first time I had returned to New York City in many years. Megabus dropped me right in the heart of the city. As I was walking down the city streets toward my hotel, there was a strangely familiar feeling. I grew up outside the city in Nyack, N.Y., and it felt good to be back.
As part of the Gather the Women Global Matrix and the International Public Policy Institute, I stayed in an old hotel on Lexington Ave. with many others from the same organizations gathering from all over the world. Alice from Pakistan, Tiffany from Scotland, Queen from Tanzania and others all came to be part of the CSW. During breakfast and dinner times we exchanged information about our families, education, opportunities etc. I wondered what it would be like to be in Alice’s family with an arranged marriage. As an American woman, it is such a challenging concept.
I was amazed to learn that this year’s CSW was the largest ever, over 6,000 registrations. Unfortunately, we were never in one place at the same time. The streets of New York were colorful with women from all over the world wearing their traditional clothing, even in the cold, windy weather. With our United Nation CSW identification badges, we would give greetings of recognition as we passed each other in the streets. Often I found myself in conversation with CSW participants at corner cafes between sessions and waiting in lines before the next sessions began. We were never without conversation and lively exchanges about who we were, where we came from and what we were passionate about at this year’s event.
During those conversations I would give out a free book that Jean Shinoda Bolen had just written, Moving Toward the Millionth Circle, Energizing the Global Woman’s Movement. Her publisher provided our group with 2,000 copies to give away. It was such fun talking to participants and giving them this little book. The young women in particular were searching us out to get a copy of the book and begin to build their own Circles of Support back in their communities. After experiencing a Circle Workshop together, Fredrick from the Solomon Islands spoke with me about using the circle process as a way of bringing equality to a conversation with men and women. He was delighted when I gave him the book.
At the end of each CSW it is expected that there will be a document that is signed by the 45 member states called the Agreed Conclusions that is then shared in a report with the full 193 member states later in the year. Last year they were not able to reach a conclusion and no document was moved forward.
At this, the 57th meeting of the CSW, the topic of addressing the relentless epidemic of violence against women and girls was sometimes difficult to listen to – women and girls recounting their struggles, talking about the lack of support, often years of oppression and abuse. Human trafficking was addressed in many sessions and it made me feel physically sick to hear that girls as young as three years old were raped and sold as sex slaves — what has happened to our humanity?
We needed to promote gender equality, women’s empowerment, and ensure women’s reproductive rights and access to reproductive health services – an area of great contention. It appeared the document had little hope again this year of passing. I thought back to our hard fight for Women’s Rights and Civil Rights in this country. We now have a voice, and for one, I want to use my voice to help the voiceless.
I was discouraged to hear all the negative comments but heartened to see so many skillful women from around the world collectively working to craft a document.
The challenges to these issues run deep. Realizing that gender inequality is embedded in and reinforced throughout the social, cultural and religious practices of many societies make this issue feel daunting. As a former nurse and educator I am passionate about prevention and supportive services.
I found it sometimes difficult to listen to the stories, but felt it was an important role to listen and witness. I went to several sessions that shared successful ideas and services that were being used by men joining forces and standing by women to end this violence. One program, Ring the Bell, was brilliant in its simplicity. Another program used technology, another the arts.
On March 8, I participated in the UN Women for Peace March to a local park to celebrate the International Day of Women. It was freezing cold and a snowy wet mixture was swirling around us as we left the UN and marched down the road. There were hundreds of us singing, talking and celebrating. I was thrilled to be asked to carry a sign, “Educate All Women!” The dignitaries, celebrities and participants all joined in singing, “One Woman,” that was just named the CSW theme song. The enthusiasm and passion could be felt as the power of this international group of women were encouraged to keep moving forward.
The following week I watched the documents go through further editing. I was worried that again, it would not pass. Prayers were sent, emails circulated, encouragement and hope were positive, yet cautious.
Finally, by late Friday a flurry of emails went out. It had passed.
A strong Agreed Conclusion at the 5th CSW marks a milestones for women everywhere. I was thrilled to see that Susan Rice, U.S. Rep to the U.N. released a statement. “The United States celebrates this progress as we pledge to redouble our effort to protect and support fundamental rights of all women and girls, both at home and around the world.”
Barbara Thorngren lives with her husband, Peter, in Temple. They have two married sons and a grandson. Barbara has been building peace education programs and working with the circle process for many years. She has her own business, PeaceWorks New Hampshire, LLC (www.peaceworks.us), which provides Collaborative Consulting, Circle Training, Peace Education Programs and Reiki Training.