This week, I’m joining forty people from the Presbyterian Church (USA), along with about 6,000 women and men from around the world, at the United Nations 58th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women. As part of the PC (USA)’s delegation, I am also serving on behalf of Ecumenical Women.
I join eight other young women who were chosen to attend with Presbyterian Women’s Young Women’s Leadership Development. We were given a full scholarship to attend. I am so very grateful for the opportunity to meet women from around this nation and our world.
When I was in the 10th grade, my high school choir (Sumter High School) under the direction of the wonderful Eric Wilkinson performed Mozart’s Vespers at Carnegie Hall. As part of the trip to New York, we toured the United Nations complex. I don’t remember much about the tour, because at the time I had no idea I would need to pay close attention. The one thing I do remember, however, is a photo display featuring women from around the world. The description asked you to guess the ages of each of the women, and then invited you to remove a panel revealing the actual age. I was floored. Most of the women, I guessed, were in their forties and fifties. As it happens, the women I thought were in their fifties were actually in their early twenties. By our standards, they had aged far too soon. Our tour guide explained that the conditions these women experience daily causes them to appear so aged. Most of them have no childhood or adolescence, the guide explained.
This year, the overall theme of the CSW is “Challenges and Achievements in the Implementation of Millennium Development Goals for Women and Girls.” In 2007, I attended my first Model UN conference in Atlanta. The topic? Evaluating the MDGs at their halfway point. Oh, continuity.
The Millennium Development Goals were established by the United Nations in the year 2000 as a global development framework for the next fifteen years. The eight goals are:
1. Eradicate extreme hunger and poverty
2. Achieve universal primary education
3. Promote gender equality and empower women
4. Reduce child mortality
5. Improve maternal health
6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
7. Ensure environmental sustainability
8. Global partnership for development
Much progress has been made toward these goals. For instance, according to the 2013 Millennium Development Goals Report, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has been halved at the global level (from 1990). However, there is much work to be done. Which is what brings us here.
Ecumenical Women has released a statement outlining the four areas that we identify as priority areas. They are:
1. Poverty and Hunger
2. Equal access to education
4. Ending violence against women and girls
Through this 58th Commission, we will be setting the stage for 2015 and beyond. We heard from Lopa Banerjee on Saturday. She is the Chief of Civil Society for UN Women. She pointed out that 2015 is a crossroads – it is the end of the MDGs and the beginning of the post-2015 SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). It is also the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration. It is an incredibly important time. And as we particularly acknowledge and address the failures of the MDGs, we can know what to emphasize for the post-2015 agenda, so that structural change will occur in order to have lasting progress for gender equality; a common set of minimum standards.
We had the great privilege of hearing from the Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlango-Ngucka. She spoke yesterday after our chapel service. Here’s a video: (it’s a bit long, but it includes the singing we did before, at her invitation). Phumzile Mlango-Ngucka was elected to South Africa’s Parliament in 1994, and she later served as the Deputy President of South Africa (from 2005-2008).
Three themes from this time are emerging for me, already:
1. Progress for women is progress for all of humanity. Gender equality is not a conversation in which only women should participate. We need the other half of the population in order for this conversation to have any relevance. We must raise our daughters and our sons to know the importance and value of women and girls within each and every society.
I feel so connected to my women’s college roots these days. Dexter Edgar Converse, the founder of our institution, wrote in his founding statement, “The well-being of any society depends much upon the culture of her women.” And it’s so very, very true. And men must be a part of not only the conversation, but the implementation of change, as well. Please check out heforshe.org to find out more ways to empower men and boys to join in the movement.
2. Our stories matter. Stories will change the world.
Many of you know that I believe fully in practicing nonviolence in all forms in every aspect of life. I mean, we’ve tried violent intervention and resistance since, like, the beginning of time, and it hasn’t really worked thus far. What can it hurt to try something different? (A conversation about what nonviolence is and isn’t would probably be helpful here, but that’s a different subject for a different day.)
I am beginning to believe that nonviolence as a way of life begins with storytelling. Listening and being heard. It’s not impossible to behave violently toward someone whose story you know – but it’s a whole heck of a lot more difficult. It’s about re-humanizing those who have been dehumanized. It’s not about speaking on their behalf- because how could I ever do justice to someone else’s story? I have my own to tell. But, we can create space for other stories to be told – stories that are otherwise unheard and unnoticed. This is the way we begin to move forward.
3. People of faith must advocate and must speak out. So often, people of faith are seen speaking out against something. (Just recently, I was incensed as a state representative in the state of Arizona declared that the vetoing of the bill which would have legalized discrimination against the LGBT community is a “war on people of faith.” No, it isn’t. But that’s what the rest of the world sees as our representation: a fearful people. A people who live as if God’s grace could ever actually be taken away. A people who have forgotten the goodness of all of God’s creation. A people who speak out of a place of hurt rather than a place of love. A people who shout for action rather than calling for peace.)
We cannot be afraid, in our own churches and communities, to make clear that gender-based violence in any form is completely and totally unacceptable. We must make clear that lack of access to clean water is not the way the world was created to be. We must make clear that the decision whether or not to have sex does not lie with the male alone. That women and girls are not objects. That reproductive health and rights are universal, and that access to each of these things is a human right. That it is unacceptable that women worldwide provide 60% of labor and own 1% of property. Speak out. Speak up. Pave a new path for people of faith. Raise a new voice and sing a new song. We have such power in our togetherness. And power is not a zero-sum game, contrary to what the world would have us believe. We can only become more powerful agents of change in the world as we combine our gifts and passions. The Kingdom of God is within our reach – but we won’t see its realization without, among many things, gender equality. So here we are.