Response: October 2015 Issue

The Rights of Women

United Methodist Women Uses its Voice at the 59th Annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

The Rights of Women
Geneviève Michel marches with the United Methodist Women delegation in a rally during the 59th U. N. Commission on the Status of Women.

Yearly in February or March at the United Nations in New York City, the intergovernmental body the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) attracts hundreds of women from around the world and provides opportunities to assess and evaluate programs, share successes and strategize for the future in efforts promoting gender equality and empowering women.

This forum brings women human rights activists and civil society organizations together with member states' ambassadors and leaders to discuss urgent issues.

At the 59th gathering in 2015, United Methodist Women hosted a global delegation of 23 women from throughout the world. United Methodist Women also partnered with international organizations to enable a diverse presence of women who would speak from grassroots experiences for those previously underrepresented.

The United Methodist Women-sponsored international delegation represented Japan, Korea, Philippines, Eastern Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Young women bridged the generational divide, and the women from Columbia, Honduras, Cameroon and Liberia represented the rural sector.

"Grassroots should have equal voice," said Tatiana Dwyer, United Methodist Women executive for global justice. "Global policymaking should listen to them and include their voices.

"This is the first year we, United Methodist Women, brought so many. Their input and feedback is crucial," she said.

The breadth of the international delegation contributed to a very meaningful week for all United Methodist Women participants. The nine from the United States hailed from the east and west coasts, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina and Michigan.

Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action

This 59th year of CSW marked the 20-year anniversary since thousands of women met in 1995 in Beijing at the Fourth World Conference on Women. There, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, unanimously adopted by the then-189 member countries, defined 12 critical areas of concern that include poverty, education, health, armed conflict and women's human rights.

In 2000, the United Nations defined eight Millennium Development Goals, the first framework focused to eradicate poverty and hunger in developing countries around the world.

CSW-59 examined the challenges faced in implementing the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. And in the past 20 years, new areas of concern, including the environment, migration and rising inequalities, have arisen.

The Millennium Development Goals expire in September 2015, when a new, larger set of sustainable development goals will replace them. These newer goals are universal for all countries.

"The goals' intent are to set standards and guide national agendas and policies," said Ms. Dwyer.

International Women's Day

The day before the official start of CSW-59 was Sunday March 8, International Women's Day. That afternoon in a spirited rally near the United Nations the United Methodist Women delegation helped fill a plaza with women and men from all over the world.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon led a march of hundreds of people carrying signs denouncing rape and violence against women and promoting peace, security and education, zigzagging through the streets of New York City to Times Square. The unifying message was strong: gender equality.

Grassroots voices

The following day, the United Methodist Women delegation began a very concentrated week of panels, meetings and reflections. Each morning, delegates shared their experiences in a briefing/debriefing before diving into the day's intense activities.

Held at United Methodist Women's Church Center for the United Nations, across the street from the U.N., United Methodist Women co-sponsored a number of panels during the week addressing issues such as maternal health, learning from grassroots leaders and flawed development strategies regarding women's migration.

"Let's globalize hope, let's globalize power. The people united will never be defeated!" said United Methodist Women delegate from Honduras Esperanza Cardona, who works with the international peasants of La Via Campesina, at the grassroots women leaders panel.

Ms. Esperanza explained that more than half the Honduran population of two million are women, and 49 percent of them live in extreme poverty.

"This is why people migrate north," she said. She spoke of her organization's struggles for respect for human rights, land, credit, housing, health care and food sovereignty.

"Food sovereignty doesn't mean importing food [like] vast quantities of beans from Ethiopia. We peasant women can grow these beans as well as rice," she said.

She spoke of an unresponsive Honduran government that supports policies that promote agribusiness. She vehemently denounced monoculture — one crop growing — and genetically modified foods.

Another United Methodist Women delegate, Justine Kwachu Kumche, executive director of Women in Alternative Action, expressed her challenges in Cameroon, a country with "252 languages or ethnic groups."

"It's not that the culture is bad, but there are some practices that violate rights of women," she said. "These are in the areas where we intervene: genital mutilation, widowhood rights and girl-child early marriage."

She explained her strategy: "We work with the grassroots women and wives of traditional leaders. Their voices are respected."

Women and migration

The projected sustainable development goals did not go unexamined at CSW-59. United Methodist Women co-sponsored the women's migration panel subtitled "Flawed Development Strategies and the Way Forward," with a critical eye at the Millennium Development Goals that were based on a pro-growth economic model focused on exports, privatization, commoditization of nature and free trade.

Catherine Tactaquin with the National Network for Immigrant Rights led off the panel, pointing out a number of areas not taken into account with the newer sustainable development goals.

"The SDGs weaken people's movements, particularly labor, farms, indigenous people and women migrants' movements by seeking to strengthen the corporate role in civil society with little accountability and financing development," she said.

She debunked the theory of "circular migration for financing development" in which it is believed that migrants temporarily leave their countries to work, develop skills, earn money (some of which they send home) and then years later return home with skills to contribute to the country's development and economy.

"We know it doesn't work like that," Ms. Tactaquin said. "Countries like the Philippines rely on labor export to fuel their economy … and sometimes disadvantageous trade agreements are accepted in order to gain work visas.

"Temporary workers can become undocumented workers. While they send home money, there are great economic and social costs," she added. Remittances take priority to their own health care and education needs. Furthermore, they do not reap the benefits of their home country. Social protections are needed in both their home country and destination country.

Also on that panel, Jennifer Farariza Meneses, from The United Methodist Church of the Philippines Board of Women's Work and part of United Methodist Women's CSW-59 delegation, spoke of 6,092 workers leaving every day from her country.

"They are mothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, nieces forced into difficult conditions abroad," she said. "Women make up more than half [of the 12-15 million working abroad]. Seventy-six percent are service workers, and 53 percent are in the prime of their life, ages 25-34."

Exploitation, maltreatment, sexual harassment, rape and attempted rape and labor violations are some of the risks the women take. With husbands and children left behind, there are tremendous social costs to Philippine society.

"We must critically understand and analyze the politics and economic structures that support and sustain modern-day slavery of our modern-day migrants, such as neoliberalism and globalization," she concluded.

Paola Cyment Fiedotin, another United Methodist Women delegate, works for Comisión de Apoyo a Refugiados y Migrantes (CAREF), a refugee and migrant rights organization in Argentina. She is also involved with a coalition of women's groups, migrant and refugee women, a human rights group, a feminist group and a national network of peasant group working with two local governments willing to change their policy on violence against women. She spoke of the South American Conference on Migrants's goal to recognize migrants as human beings and not as a threat. The countries of Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia and Ecuador have added some migrant rights to their constitution allowing for access to health care and education.

However, regularization for getting work permits is different. Current conditions encourage trafficking. Dominican women denied a visa still come to Argentina.

"They're trafficked, now over borders where there is violence during transit, abuses, they have debt to pay back and have to work as sex workers," said Ms. Fiedotin.

Following the speakers, the panel was turned over to the attendees who broke into groups to share their experiences, talk about strategies and discuss how to build coalitions.

Peace and security

Another exceptionally powerful United Methodist Women panel, "Women Cross Most Militarized Border in the World," focused on ending the Korean War and on a planned action to cross the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the most militarized border in the world, between North and South Korea, to unite women from both sides. The women peacemakers on this panel spoke movingly about how the DMZ is a vestige of the Korean War and continues to keep families apart. They planned to cross the DMZ and unite women from the north and south, calling for peace and reunification, which happened May 24 (and included Nobel Peace laureates Mairead Maguire and Leymah Gbowee as well as women's rights activist Gloria Steinem).

Ms. Dwyer emphasized how delegates also attended many other events, pointing out how Ms. Cardona from Honduras and Yuleida Alvarez from Colombia attended a meeting at the United Nations of the International Fund for Agricultural Development. United Methodist Women Director Nichea Ver Veer Guy joined them.

"Our women had a chance to talk about their real concerns about food, nutrition, security and development with other rural women and also representatives of the World Bank and the United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organization," Ms. Dwyer explained.

Next steps

After an incredible week of panels and meetings, sharing experiences, learning strategies and making new friends, the United Methodist Women delegation and staff who were part of CSW-59 came together the final afternoon.

In a technique introduced by United Methodist Women executive for community action Carol Barton, each participant wrote on sticky notes what they learned, what moved them and what they would put into action on returning home. The notes were placed at the head, heart or hand of an outline of a person.

One-by-one the delegates shared their own personal wrap-up. Some voiced learning how important it was to involve men in the gender equality fight. Some takeaways were targeted to the delegates' work. Mariko Yamaoka from Japan learned that the Swedish Congress, which is 50 percent women, passed a law that criminalizes the purchaser not just the seller of sex. Ms. Yamaoka also realized, "Demand for 50-50 gender equality is real, not a slogan!"

Many acknowledged the universality of women's issues.

"I'm overwhelmed with the collective voices of women," said Ms. Kumche from Cameroon. "I realize all the stories are global and the same. These things are expressed differently in different countries but all the women's collective voices can lead to, can make a change if we unite."

As for plans of action, Geneviève Michel from Haiti recognized that the issue of gender equality is not addressed in her country.

"My organization [YWCA Haiti] should get in contact with Ministry of Women to get involved in more real, specific and tangible actions," she said.

Others voiced a new understanding of how they would use social media for organizing and activism.

The trip to New York, the United Nations and the United States was a first for many of the international delegates. Numerous times they voiced gratefulness for the opportunity to participate. They learned so much they would take back with them.

The United Methodist Women delegates experienced formal and informal events, relevant panels and meetings, serious and casual conversations that will broaden their perspectives on gender equality and build on the foundations for their work at home on behalf of women and children. It was a fully engaged week.

In one very moving testimony during the wrap-up, Catherine Djilan Nyenawo from Liberia spoke from the heart.

"Sometimes I'm so discouraged. But, I'm leaving, believing in 50-50 percent, with new courage and determination to fight for what rightfully belongs to me."

Tequila Minski is photojournalist based in New York City.

Posted or updated: 9/30/2015 11:00:00 PM
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