Optimism, enthusiasm and expectation filled the air as Anglican, Episcopal and Mothers' Union delegates from more than 20 countries around the world gathered for the opening day of the 61st session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York on Monday.
This year’s theme, “Women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work”, will look at issues such as how to promote equality and how to give women better access to education. Thousands of people are attending the two-week event – many representing faith groups, NGOs and various UN groups. Hundreds of other events will be taking place in parallel.
The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, told the opening plenary that campaigners were an inspiration as they championed equality. Empowerment for women had to be a key priority - and he promised that he and the UN would support them every step of the way.
There was loud applause from the Anglican delegation as the Secretary General declared that women’s rights were human rights and that attacks on women were attacks on everyone. Mr Guterres urged campaigners to hold the UN to its promises on equality.
Scottish Episcopal delegate, Rachael Fraser, said she was impressed by his willingness to be accountable: “I am encouraged by him. He has been committed to gender equality from the outset - and this is a really important topic to acknowledge,” she continued. “It’s an area very closely tied to other aspects of gender equality because I feel it opens doors. If women are able to achieve equal opportunities in terms of economic status then I think that is a sort of snowball effect in allowing so many other aspects of equality to be achieved.”
Noreen Njovu from Zambia felt the discussion was long overdue: “Women have been oppressed for a long time,”she said. “This is a wake-up call. People now need to realise that a woman is the same as a man. When she does the same amount of work, she deserves to be paid the same.”
Mathilde Nkwirikiye , a lawyer from Burundi and Mothers' Union member, said she hoped the Commission would support families: “Empowering women starts in the family. If a father and mother look at their sons and daughters equally – that is the beginning.”
Mathilde said the theme was especially important in a poor country such as Burundi, which was so dependent on agriculture and where much of the farming was done by women. But she was hopeful of returning home with a positive message. “I hope they (the Commission) will inspire us, we will inspire each other and we will come together and highlight strategies to make a change for women across the world.”
Fellow MU member, Revd Immaculee Nyiransen, from Rwanda, agreed that it was essential the Commission addressed issues at the grass roots, if real change was to happen in the lives of many women.
For Khushbakht Peters, an eye surgeon from Peshawar in Pakistan, the key will be agreeing how best to engage with local leaders: “I hope there is a strategy formed in which we can discuss with cultural leaders how they can help and allow women to be economically empowered, especially in a country like Pakistan which is quite different from other countries of the world because our culture is very strong,“she said. “It will be better if we discuss with cultural leaders more and help them to understand the strategy of the UN and CSW.”
Heavy snowfall in New York meant many of the events planned for the second day, Tuesday, had to be cancelled. But a parallel event on women of faith building peace in South Sudan will go ahead, after an alternative venue was found by the Anglican Communion team at the UN. Delegates will hear from Harriet Baka Nathan and Joy Kwaje Eluzai from the Episcopal Church of South Sudan about their first-hand experiences.
CSW is a complex event. A draft document was produced by the end of February and has since been added to. More additions will be made by the Commission over the course of the event as delegates lobby for changes. The negotiators have been urging delegates to come up with practical suggestions of ideas that will work on the ground. The final agreement – the Agreed Conclusions – is then to be put to the UN. If approved, member nations are expected to implement it.
Revd Laura Marie Piotrowicz, from Canada, said the agreed statements would be helpful: “I am going to take back increased knowledge and a broader network of resources. And I think all that information will feed into a greater sense of hope.”
Rachael Fraser agreed: “My main hope is that this acts as a springboard for action,” she said.