Fiona’s Arrival at the UNCSW
I arrived in Harlem unaware of what The Apollo Theatre meant to women’s history, where figures such as Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin once performed. There was a snaking line down W 125th St, women and men eager with their tickets in hand. This was the kick off to an educational and spiritual journey – one where every individual was eager to hear about issues that matter. Our cab driver gestured to the line in shock stating “You’re going in THAT line on a Sunday morning?!” Yes we were.
The forum day was opened by Soon-Young Yoon, the chair of NGO CSW-New York. Yoon shared that this year’s Commission would consist of over 450 parallel NGO events, a record and a testament to the increased NGO communication with the United Nations Commission proceedings. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, then took the stage. She discussed the changes that have occurred in the past 20 years, that in Beijing they did not know the key role social media would be for change. Mlambo-Ngcuka referenced issues such as women in armed conflict and the immense role they have played in peacekeeping efforts, furthermore the power that has been given with the availability of contraception. She stated:
“We need to focus on how to change the paradigm, not to continue to fit in it… Let us exchange ideas and programs so we may all learn and drink from that fountain… The world must change, not the women.”
If we move at the current rate towards equality, it will take 50 more years.
The keynote speaker at the Forum was Ruchira Gupta, creator of the NGO Apne Aap in India, Emmy winner, winner of the NGO CSW/NY Women of Distinction Award, and winner of the Clinton Global Citizen Award. To say Gupta’s work is incredible is an understatement. In the 90s she opened the eyes of many who were unaware of the human trafficking business and its’ horrifying realities. Gupta’s organization Apne Aap literally means “Self Empowerment,” as she found the empowerment of one generation of women in the sex trade business meant the empowerment of generations to come. The organization thrived on the idea of connecting within the community, Gupta stated “change begins at the bottom and transforms the top.” Gupta pleads that as a global community we shift towards criminalizing the traffickers, not those who are trafficked, and not only penalize but educate the “Johns” who are customers of this commercialization of rape. Gupta succinctly ended her speech with an incredible sentiment “It does not matter what class you are, the exploitation of any woman normalizes the exploitation of all.”
Dr. Gertrude Mongella from Tanzania filled the theatre with creativity in her perspective on women’s rights. Dr. Gertrude Mongella is the Former Under-Secretary-General, and Secretary General at the Fourth World Conference on Women. Mongella’s energy was infectious. She encouraged us to have our own vision of equality and not only strive for what men have obtained – “When I look around my village, the men are equally miserable. Is this what I want to be equal to?” Mongella reminded us that there is no deadline to equality, and although the support of men in this movement is crucial “we should stop saying support the right men, we must say supporting the right women.”
There are still many areas that need work, and we cannot allow ourselves to believe everything that has been accomplished in the last twenty years is sufficient. Questions remain – how will we include indigenous and trans or multi gender individuals in the coming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? How will implementation be ensured? How will goals be effective when nations are not held accountable? How will the drastic effects of climate change be combatted and aided, as women will be the most affected? As per the incomparable Mary Robinson’s final notes – the new generation has to be given space, and often must pay the price for standing for our beliefs. Robinson stated “2015 is probably one of the most important years for development.”
It is women who lead behavioural change in culture. We cannot romanticize or take for granted what has been accomplished or is being accomplished, we must stay focused.
We flooded out of the Apollo Theatre into the beaming sunlight and the pulse of the city, reminded of the promise of what we have learned and what we are set out to accomplish. We shifted from thought to action as we headed for the International Women’s Day March.