My Experience at UNCSW2017 by Alana Sarapnickas
My experience at the United Nations Conference on the Status of Women (UNCSW) in 2017 began with a joint briefing held by Janis Alton and Senator Marilou McPhedran; two women who have committed their lives to women’s rights, and peace and security. Janis first attended the CSW in 1985 with the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace (VOW) disarmament committee. She described her experience as taking place in a small room. It was eye opening to compare Janis’s first description of the CSW, to what it consists of today. Eight thousand, six hundred people attended the CSW this year and their presence did not go unnoticed; some conference rooms were so crowded we happily sat on the floor just to hear the panellists speak. The UN is now considering restricting the participation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It has always been an uphill battle to demand that the voice of NGOs be present at the UN. In this ‘report-back’, I will try to explain why I believe the voice of NGOs are one of the most important contributors to change and progress at the UN, throughout other government organizations, and around the world.
The first conference that stood out to me at the CSW was called Empowerment as an Instrument to Eradicate All Forms of Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls. Cherrah Giles, who is on the board for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center in the United States, was the first to present. She spoke about what type of violence she has encountered in her life and in the lives of indigenous women she has met. She has been lobbying for her government to place the rights of these women at a higher priority. She wants the UN to adopt a resolution and a UN declaration of rights for indigenous women. Next to speak was the president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, Francyne Joe. She was upset that her organization lost funding from the government on April 1st 2017. Furthermore, her organization was excluded at federal tables where only three NGOs were invited to participate. Finally, Jeannie Dendys, the Minister from Yukon for Tourism and Culture in Canada had a chance to speak. She explained that initially she was only supposed to do an introduction ceremony but because Carolyn Bennett, the Minister for Indigenous and Northern Affairs in Canada, was unable to attend, Ms. Dendys took the opportunity to share her story; a story that I believe was meant to be told! Before becoming a Minister, she worked with a justice organization in the Yukon. She was very proud of the work that the organization was able to do, such as connecting the community through land-based healing programs. However, one initiative was very successful at lowering violence in her community, a crime prevention initiative. It was organized by her own community and they analyzed their own data alongside the data collected by other NGOs and the government. They found that there was a high density of people living in a small area, ninety-five percent of service calls were violence related, many of the calls involved alcohol or drugs, seventy-five percent of calls resulted in minor charges, and the Royal Canadian Mounty Police (RCMP) were responding inaccurately to most distress calls. They changed housing policies, worked with the police to shut down drug houses, and initiated a police-training course. This resulted in a forty percent reduction in the distress calls made that were related to violence. An observer in the audience asked if Ms. Dendys had a document that they could bring back to their community that laid out the process to achieve similar results but the answer was regrettably avoided. These are the organizations making a difference at the grassroots level, and these are the venues in which women’s voices can be heard. They have the power to change government policies and change communities and that is why it is so important to continue funding and push for participation rights. Furthermore, the power of information sharing is undeniable when it comes to Dendys’ last example. If governments and communities work together, document their success stories and share them, the positive results could be nationwide.
The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early feminism and the Suffragist Movement Then and Now conference, left me thinking about what was presented days afterwards! Sally Wagner, a women’s studies scholar and writer, partnered up with her long-time friend Jeanne Shenandoah, a member of the Ononadaga Nation, to give one of the most memorable conferences I have had the honour of witnessing. Both women have made a significant impact on their local communities through teaching, activism and leadership. During this conference, they questioned stereotypes, ideologies, and gave the participants an opportunity to view an issue from their hearts and not their minds. Sally Wagner explained that she believed her early education was built on misinformation and she was “trained to be an appropriator.” She believed she was misguided in gaining a PHD without even reading one indigenous Treaty. With that being said, she spent the rest of her career devoting herself to learning how indigenous cultures promoted the women’s movement in America. She stated that unintended racism was guiding what she chose to retain from books she was reading and research she undertook discovering the origins of the women’s movement. The most important moment of the conference was when Sally stood up and claimed she was a “recovering racist.” The courage and bravery that she displayed was surprising, and then feelings of unity, inspiration, and love overwhelmed the room. She began to describe how white women in history were subjected to sexism, through corsets that literally prevented them from standing and functioning on their own, to rape that was legal as long as the women was married to their rapist. Then, she made the connection between their liberation and the indigenous cultures that were thriving beside their communities. In the late 1800’s, newspapers would print articles about nearby indigenous communities. Not only did these articles prove that indigenous women at that time were living in an egalitarian society, but it proved that the longevity of one white woman’s life was believed to be dependent on her diet consumed primarily on the purchases made from the indigenous community surrounding her home. During the beginnings of the women’s movement, many white women would witness how indigenous women were living in society and begin to demand the same freedoms. However, these same women were living “an American fairy-tale, alongside a genocide.” Two polar ideas were taking place at this time; one that women should have their own rights, and another that denied indigenous people their rights. The overall summary of Ms. Wagner’s research proved that it is very easy to live one truth but forget the importance of another. Ms. Shenandoah, a woman that spoke from a place of love and calmness, was next to present, and the two women complemented each other. Ms. Shenandoah described how women are represented in her clan family. Newborns in her clan receive their identity from their mother. Their ‘clan mother,’ or leader, is chosen based on love, compassion, and care. Ms. Shenandoah went on to speak of an issue that I personally believe is of the utmost importance in our age, the right of women and men as humans to be responsible for women’s rights. The clan mother chooses a chief, to lead the community, based on the same qualities as their mother. However, this choice is never misrepresented as power. Ms. Shenandoah pointed out that in their clan, power is unjust; their clan thrives on relationships and the responsibilities born from those relationships, not power. The community and the mother can ban a chief, however, this does not derive from a source of power but a truth lived from the entire community. She went on to speak of her community’s values such as being thankful for everything given in life, rather than asking for constant forgiveness which is something that was ingrained in catholic colonial institutions during her childhood. She stated that we all need to stop assuming we know the answers in life in order to come to a common understanding of one another. After the official presentation, the two women discussed the interpretation of an illegal immigrant. Ms. Shenandoah thought it was absolutely absurd to believe anyone could be considered an ‘alien’ because no one owns the land in which they walk on; her clan does not recognize the United States as a state or even claim New York citizenship. The discussion after the conference involved significant questions about finding indigenous culture again, and how appropriate it may be to involve subcultures. One woman stated that subcultures can be used to heal one’s heart in order to “find a way home,” and that “this was okay.” Without women like Ms. Wagner and Ms. Shenandoah, these connections, these breakthroughs, and these lessons would never be heard. Furthermore, I believe it is clear how important it is to promote their voices on an international and governmental level because their knowledge can help change the way we view policy and reconciliation. Brave, honest, and caring people deserve to have their voice heard because truly, they are the born leaders.
I first became interested in actively engaging men in my own discussions about gender equality after watching Jackson Katz’s Ted Talk on Violence Against Women—It’s a Men’s Issue. Jackson Katz argued that men are the most important actors in the fight against gender inequality because they are responsible for calling out discrimination in their peer groups and being role models to other boys. The last conference I want to discuss was called The Barbershop Toolbox: Changing the Discourse among Men and Boys on Gender Equality. There was a large line outside the conference room to get into this presentation, proving that this campaign was well marketed and very successful. The popular HeforShe campaign was created by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UNWomen). The goal of HeforShe is to encourage men and boys to participate in conversations regarding gender equality and take action to become part of the solution. Possibly one of the most distinguishing features of this campaign is that it is not only targeted towards civil society, universities, and individuals, but it is a campaign that first presented accepted plans for UN agencies. This presents an opportunity for UN agencies to engage on a shared platform with civil society and work together towards a desired goal; the trickle down effect is working alongside a trickle up movement! It was UNWomen in partnership with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iceland, which created the Barbershop Toolkit to complement this campaign. The Barbershop Toolkit presents tools for men and boys to help them better understand the effects of gender inequality on a social and economic level, and to help encourage them to become agents of change. The toolkit goes through, step by step, how to run a workshop in your community or at your workplace. These workshops or leadership engagements range from discussions surrounding violence against women to common gender stereotypes. Examples were presented, where a boys sports coach at a Finland elementary school promoted the achievements of women sports professionals in order to break down the gender stereotype that boys are better at sports. These workshops are progressive because they encourage a male-to-male dialogue that forces the participants to engage rather than just listen. One in nine men have joined the HeforShe campaign in Finland, a country that has rated second on the Global Gender Gap Index for 2016. The campaign members are hoping that the movement and toolkit continues to progress with a multiplier effect in Finland and across the world. Elizabeth Nyamayaro, the director of HeforShe, took the time to explain the racial, gender, and social inequalities she has faced throughout her life. She used this as an example to show that it takes a whole of society, not just half, to uplift a society. Joni Van De Sand, the international director of an organization called MenEngaged, noted that eighty-five percent of ambassadors to the UN are men; therefore, they thought it was important to start a Barbershop lunch session with the UN. She gave an excellent presentation explaining that these sessions personalize gender equality and allow men and women to step back and realize “wait, gender equality IS about ME!” Lastly, it was noted that gender inequality couldn’t be discussed without discussing violence against women. A film with Tom Stranger was presented during the conference. Tom Stranger raped a woman in high school and went public about the incident years later with the woman he raped in order to take full accountability and open a global dialogue about rape culture. He talks about how it is important to reflect and engage on your own behaviour, and remain accountable. After he was featured on Ted Talks he received a number of responses from other men such as “you were young and drunk and you should not be so hard on yourself,” to “you don’t look like a rapist.” These responses are what need to be discussed, debated, and addressed in order to move away from a rape culture and towards an egalitarian society. Overall, I attribute this campaign’s success not only to its powerful marketing tools, but also to its sensible message: we all need to work towards equality. UNWomen intends to translate this message into six different languages and engage many different organizations in numerous countries in the near future and I am looking forward to the data collected and the results they uncover.
In conclusion, I would like to thank Janis Alton, and all the members involved at VOW, for making this experience possible. Janis has given many women the opportunity to attend the CSW for years now, and her stamina and giving nature are an inspiration. I am very grateful to have been a part of such an amazing gathering of creative, inspiring, and knowledgeable individuals who continue to do such amazing work around the world. As this was my second time attending the CSW, I was able to navigate through the week with a bit more grace and soak up a lot more from my environment. There is always something new to be learned and I believe in order to keep growing as an individual it is important to take advantage of those opportunities to listen. Governments and international institutions also need to listen and recognize the importance of civil society in order to fulfill their purpose for the greater good. Change and growth has never developed from ignoring the few. The individuals and organizations discussed in this ‘report-back’ represent a few voices on the international stage but they prove how important it is for governments to engage with NGOs as they have a strong understanding of what work needs to be done. Sharing information, and opening a stage for leaders to help influence can make all of the difference when you are trying to create a better world for others and ultimately yourself. I am not sure where my passions will take me in the future but I know I will always look back at these experiences as inspiration for the next mountain to climb.