gender, girls rights, Women's rights


My guest blog on UN Women NY, for women’s history month! Here is the link to Herstory and below is the full original text:


A couple days ago I bought a magazine on women’s running as I was boarding a long haul flight and I enjoy reading about women who take charge of their life and their body. This edition had a distinctly feminist article on women runners who bravely fought oppressive forces that told them women can’t, shouldn’t and aren’t physically built to run any distance, certainly not a marathon, and did it anyway. It told the story of a series of amazing women, beginning in Greece in the 19th century, who decided for themselves that they are strong enough to run and went at it despite serious backlash.

One woman wasn’t allowed into the Athens marathon so she ran beside it the entire way and finished in just over 4 hours. The article told the famous story of K.W. Switzer who signed up to the Boston Marathon in 1967 when women were not allowed to enter. The officials later discovered that K stood for Katherine and tried to physically remove her from the race.

She was protected by her boyfriend and a number of male runners who eventually ran beside her the entire distance to ensure the Boston Marathon officials couldn’t catch her again. Finally, in 1972 women were allowed to compete and Switzer went on to win 1st place in the 1974 NY marathon.

The article told the story of Paula Radcliffe who resumed her training schedule 12 days after giving birth to her daughter and won the NY marathon 10 months later.  The list of female athletes who broke through barriers and stood fast against stereotypes, stigma and patriarchy goes on.

These stories are important ones and should be told and retold, lest we forget that what women have today, the right to vote, the right to run, the right to receive an education, have been hard won. It’s even more important in light of the fact that in many places in the world, women are still struggling to gain even the most basic rights, such as in Saudi Arabia where they aren’t allowed to drive. And that in some places women are still viewed as commodities, to be bought and sold at the whim of their male family members, such as in Afghanistan which boasts one of the highest levels of child marriage in the world.  And it’s important because in some places girls and young women are still struggling to protect their own bodies from an excision blade. And it’s important because of girls like Malala Yousefzai from Pakistan who stood up for her right to receive an education and was consequently brutally shot in the head. She is the youngest nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in history.

For these reasons and more, we choose to celebrate women’s history month. However, this should not be viewed as a walk down memory lane, but as a living breathing testament to the struggle we are still facing to gain our rightful place beside those who have power over our bodies and over our choices. This struggle for equality, respect and protection goes on all the time, everywhere in the world, and we would do well to learn from the stories of brave women and girls who wouldn’t’ take no for an answer.

Commission on the Status of Women, gender, girls rights, United Nations, violence

57th Commission on the Status of Women – should we care?

Since joining the women’s empowerment sector, i have had the opportunity to attend and lead delegations to a couple CSW meetings in NY. I was initially quite excited by the idea of a high level summit of women’s organizations all committed to feminist ideals coming together at the United Nations to establish new policies, present innovative ideas and breath new life into stagnant discussions around age old problems. Although the side panels are always interesting, and a great place to network and meet like minded dedicated individuals, I have always felt that the CSW was more style than substance.

From an advocacy perspective these meetings are a dud. The ‘Agreed Conclusions‘ document that is adopted at the end of the two week meetings have no teeth, no accountability mechanisms and rarely (if ever) get translated into government level policies. In fact  the few General Assembly discussions i have had the misfortune to attend were dull affairs where countries of the world, in alphabetical order, regaled a dozing audience with stories of what they do to help/protect/promote/mention women. At certain points this becomes an almost comic affair as countries who are well known for their complete disregard to women’s rights and countries that have been chosen multiple times as ‘the worst place to be a woman’ or some such, stand up and give a 10 minute brief on their dedication to the issue.

So why do third sector organizations with stretched budgets keep spending good money to attend these meetings? granted, there is some press and media attention to be had. But it’s rather marginal, and I wonder who besides those that are already interested (you policy wonks know who you are!) actually follow things like #CSW57 and other hashtags?

During the two week meeting the big INGO’s get together with the UN agencies who bring an OECD mission along so they can all hug each other on a panel discussion. So the well known allies of women’s groups get together and celebrate themselves, while certain governments work in advance to create a blocking vote that derails any attempt at passing more action oriented conclusions.

the best example of CSW impotence is the fact that in my many travels to ‘the field’, no one has ever heard of this meeting. sorry, but its true. the only interested folks, are those who are attending, have attended, or might attend one of the meetings in future.

seriously though, wouldn’t it be great if women’s organizations got together (what a pipe dream huh?) and boycotted the whole thing? or held an alternative CSW, like the World Social Forum, but for women and girls? then we would spend two weeks naming and shaming governments, creating real alliances based on a feminist political consciousness that didn’t shy away from challenging the old power bases and spoke about girls rights in terms other than ‘what a great investment’ (read – more consumers for our free market systems).

I guess we’ll call that radical idea ‘Plan B’.

In the meantime, I’m taking this CSW with a grain of salt. With the lofty intention of ‘eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls’ there is more riding on the outcomes of these meetings than ever before.  Women and girls are suffering from violence and abuse right now. there has never been a more urgent call to action, nor is there a more pervasive widespread issue that touches every women and every girl in the world. So what will the CSW actually manage to achieve  Will we see a limp set of innocuous ‘agreed conclusions’ that will have no impact what so ever? or will we see funding allocations and policy changes?

I guess we’ll have to wait and see. But I’m not holding my breath.