Since 1946, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) has been the main international platform where governments can discuss women’s empowerment. Each year, meetings of the Commission, where UN member states can debate global standards of gender equality and women’s empowerment, run for two weeks in March. Thousands of activists also attend. Days are packed with panel discussions and presentations. Side and parallel events that start early and can run into the evening.
I had the incredible opportunity to participate in UNCSW63 from March 9–15, 2019, supported by OSSTF/FEESO. The Commission’s theme for 2019 was ‘Social Protection systems, accessible public services, sustainable infrastructure.’
The atmosphere in all of the Commission’s events was so energizing. Everyone had stories to tell, stories we could all learn from, and that helped solidify the resolve to continue our work.
By the end of each day, after the sheer volume of events, combined with evening time spent sorting through notes I had hurriedly scribbled in an attempt to record as much information as possible, it felt as if I had run in a marathon. I was able to attend panel discussions about sexual harassment in the workplace (Australia), child care and decent work (Canada/CLC), and working with youth to combat gender based violence (Czech Republic), just to name a few.
I was part of the Education International (EI) delegation, which is comprised of education workers from North America, the Caribbean, and Europe. Prior to arriving in New York, EI staff organized itineraries, made suggestions for workshops to attend, planned regular meetings for EI delegates, and even tended to practical activities such as showing new attendees around the United Nations building and advising on protocols and the best places to snag food between meetings. The delegation was a nice mix of women who had been to the United Nations many years running and those who were experiencing it for the first time.
The tone for the Commission was set during the opening ceremony by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. He made reference to some significant movements (#metoo) around gender equality, but noted that change has been slow, especially in recent years. We need to ‘pick up the pace’ of change in the face of pushback from conservative states, for example, the pushback on women’s rights through the implementation of austerity agendas. We need to be relentless in fighting rollbacks on legal protection against intimate partner violence, increased violence against women running for political office, and wage inequality.
But equality is about more than numbers. It is about more than placing women in leadership roles with nothing else changing. It is more than “add women and stir.” It is about building in the structures and supports so women can participate fully and equally. It is about building better societies. At the events and panel discussions I attended, it was moving to acknowledge how far some have come. It is also important to admit how far we have to go.
Yes, there remains much to do, and the effort can take its toll. After years of struggle, it can be discouraging to see what seems to be so little progress. However, as Nelson Mandela said, “it is always impossible until it gets done.” I hope that OSSTF/FEESO continues to provide opportunities for participation at future UNCSW meetings.