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Meet the Other U.N. Women


UN: Opening of the 55th Commission of the Status of Women. Credit: Devra Berkowitz/UN Photos

By Kanya D’Almeida

United Nations (IPS) – Tucked away from the high-level plenary sessions of the 55th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), a small chapel opposite the United Nations headquarters came to life Wednesday morning with the voices and stories of the real women behind U.N. Women.

Hailing from over 27 countries, the heads of local food cooperatives, radical educators, grassroots activists organising around issues of housing, eco-sustainability and safe cities, and visionary matriarchal leaders crowded together to shout their message loud and clear: “We are agents of change, not aid recipients!”

Organised by the Huairou Commission, an international coalition that works with grassroots women’s groups to promote their collective political power at the global level, the “Grassroots Speakout on U.N. Women” brought 50 women activists together to share their stories, suggestions and critiques of the newly established agency on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

“For too long, grassroots women have been excluded from agenda-setting, planning and consultations in the U.N.’s gender architecture,” Huairou’s CSW statement read. “At most they have been viewed as targets or beneficiaries at the stage of implementation, or included in a token way on panels.”

Now, the statement proclaimed, it is time to move beyond tokenisation, and to seize the moment offered by U.N. Women to bring the real activists, victims and workers to the table.

From Community Co-ops to Executive Board Rooms

Rose Mapendo, a survivor of the 1998 “death camps” in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and founder of the women’s support network Mapendo New Horizons, could not hold back her tears as she recounted her story of loss, survival and struggle.

After witnessing her own husband’s murder, she was thrown into a government-sponsored “death camp” along with her 10 children, where women and children were systematically beaten or starved to death. While in the camps she gave birth to twin boys, and tied her umbilical cord with her own hair. She has emerged, scarred by war and atrocity, as a fierce fighter for women’s rights.

“We are all equal,” she told IPS. “Men cannot survive without women, every man was born of a woman, we all need each other.”

“As a survivor, I know how to empower women because I know what we have in common,” Mapendo said. “We are mothers. We are the same. Shame for one woman is shame on all women, it is my own shame and yours, and U.N. Women’s, too,” she added.

“We need to bring the real victims to the table, the ones who have suffered, the ones who truly understand, in their bones and their blood, that we have to fight together and love one another. These are the women we need to listen to,” she concluded.

One by one, boldly, confidently, women who hitherto had never even left their own countries stepped up to the microphone and echoed Mapendo’s words.

All of the women are leaders in their own communities – sustainable farmers from Peru working to provide long-term food security; slum-dwellers from Port Moresby working to make overcrowded neighbourhoods safe for women and girls; financial cooperative leaders from the Philippines providing credit to women entrepreneurs; rural agricultural workers from Nigeria struggling to create ecologically sound village economies.

Almost every woman represented a coalition of 1,000 or more smaller grassroots organisations, yet every single one of them mourned their exclusion from high-level consultations, from decision-making bodies, and from the leadership structure of the U.N.

In turn, each woman called on U.N. Women to change this structure, to end exclusion and to bring local organisers to the table if they wanted to see some real, lasting change.

Fixing the Broken Table

On Saturday, Feb. 26, hundreds of grassroots women’s leaders, academics and scholars gathered at the New School for an event entitled “Celebrating U.N. Women: The Way Forward.”

Organised by the Women’s Learning Partnership, which trains and supports potential women leaders in Muslim-majority countries, the event brought panelists together to chart a successful course of action for the nascent U.N. Women, which is already getting heat for inadequacy in tackling the mammoth challenges before it.

“Despite the fact that the plans and ideas of past U.N. agencies have failed abysmally, we have decided not to change anything about the system and carry on as we have for the last 65 years,” said Mallika Dutt, the president and CEO of Breakthrough, stressing that rather than bringing more women to a “broken table”, U.N. Women needs to radically alter the shape of the table itself, like women activists have been doing locally for years.

“It is not enough to keep adding women to a series of failed policies and agencies – U.N. Women needs to be a political voice, a tipping point, for us in the grassroots,” she added.

Francis Kissling, a visiting scholar from the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and the former longtime president of Catholics for a Free Choice, added that the U.N. has, for too long, enabled the voices of religious fundamentalists to usurp conversations about gender equity and water down women’s priorities within the patriarchal body.

“The Holy See has seen its status in the U.N. upgraded several times in the last 20 years,” Kissling told IPS. “Agencies are afraid of the Holy See. It has launched campaigns against UNICEF and UNFPA, which have contributed to the natural caution of those agencies.”

Kissling added, “The very existence of the Security Council is antithetical to a feminist model of conflict resolution. It assumes that the most powerful get to solve the problems of the less powerful without their participation.”

“The veto formula makes negotiation among equals impossible. In a feminist model, the parties in a conflict would be at the table in the most privileged space. Their experience and needs would be a top consideration,” she concluded.

“We need victims, witnesses, at the highest level of U.N. Women,” Mapendo told IPS. “It is only after hearing these stories that we can truly, in our hearts, fight to end these atrocities.”

“We can’t change the past,” she added, “but we can work together – us, the women in the grassroots – to change our future.”

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