The 51st Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was convened at 10 AM on February 26, 2007 in Conference Room 2 of UN Headquarters in New York City. The main themes and issues of this year's CSW were (a) Implementation of strategic objectives and action in critical areas of concern and further actions and initiatives: (i) the elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence against the girl child; (ii) evaluation of progress in the implementation of the agreed conclusions on the role of men and boys in achieving gender equality; (b) emerging issues, trends and new approaches to issues affecting the situation of women or equality between women and men; (c) gender mainstreaming, situations and programmatic matters. The theme focusing on ending elimination of discrimination and violence against the girl child created the appropriate opportunity for girls to be present at this CSW and give voice to their experiences, concerns and ideas regarding their reality in relation to the theme. It was exciting to see the girls and young women take hold of the chances to participate, speak and show leadership in the process of caucusing and giving input to the official delegations about the outcome document.
Newly appointed Deputy Secretary General Migiro spoke at the opening session. As Tanzania's Minister for Community Development, Gender and Children, she led her country's delegation to the CSW for many years. She committed herself as Deputy Secretary-General to supporting the ongoing work of the CSW. Ms. Migiro went on to affirm the significant contributions of the Commission in improving the lives of women and girls around the world, including the development of normative and policy frameworks to promote equality between men and women. While acknowledging progress she admitted that there is still a long way to go for full implementation, whether it is primary school enrollment, maternal mortality rates, women's economic independence or representation in decision making. Ms. Migiro pledged her support of the proposal to strengthen the UN's gender architecture (entities serving the advancement of women and their functioning), and the goal of 50/50 gender parity within the UN.
As preparation for the 51st CSW, Global Youth Action Network, Working Group on Girls, NGO Committee on UNICEF, Voices of Youth and UNICEF organized worldwide input of girls and young women through focus groups, surveys and online discussions. Ideas were compiled from these young women on how to eliminate discrimination and violence against the girl child. The report entitled "It's time to listen to us!" was presented at the CSW. The key recommendation from the 1318 respondents from 59 countries and eight regions is that "Every girl should get an education". In addition, the respondents indicated that governments hold primary responsibility for protecting girls from discrimination and violence, and families, communities and governments are responsible for empowering girls.
Main sessions of the CSW gave delegate nations the opportunity to report on their country's progress and barriers to progress on each of the themes (listed above). The March 1st, afternoon main session dealt with emerging issues, trends and new approaches to issues affecting the situation of women or equality between women and men. Panelists included Secretary General's Special Advisor on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, Rachel Mayanja, UNIFEM Director, Noeleen Heyzer and Director of the UN International Research and Training Institute of Women, Carmen Moreno. Ms. Mayanja stressed that empowering women and gender mainstreaming is the key to tackling poverty and poverty related problems. Ms. Heyzer called for monitoring of treaties and policies that target women's empowerment. Ms. Moreno emphasized the necessity of women having a voice in decision making on all levels so that societies and governments can respond to their needs.
At the conclusion of statements from the panelists, national delegations reported based on the theme of the session. Among the reports came statements from Rwanda, Pakistan, Yemen, Cuba, Switzerland and Costa Rica. The report from Rwanda identified the impact of the period of genocide on women, as well as emerging trends of increased rape and domestic violence. A review of and strengthening of laws regarding violence and discrimination against women was emphasized. Pakistan is focusing on programs to support women and care for women victims of violence. The focus there is raising awareness about the importance of gender equality. Yemen is developing policy and increasing women's participation in political arenas. Yemen is determined to reach to goal of universal primary education for girls by 2015. Cuba's report expressed concern for the numbers of child laborers around the world. Cuba's children all go to school and the country has a 99.6% literacy rate, according to the report. Switzerland expressed particular concern about the growing problem of FGM there, because of the influx of immigrants from Africa. The practice has been outlawed. The report commits to continued efforts to fulfill gender equity in Switzerland. Costa Rica acknowledged the feminine face of poverty. Girls have the opportunity to go to school by law, but the government is still working to get more girls in school. Also, education funding is challenging due to the amount of debt the country has. The report pushed for debt relief.
Another important aspect of the Commission on the Status of Women is the Parallel Events sponsored by NGOs (nongovernmental organizations). Of special note are the many events held that featured girls as panelists. The World Association for Girl Guides and Girl Scouts had two very eloquent girl activists on the panel. One panelist from Antigua worked to educate her peers about the importance of postponing sexual activity to prevent teen pregnancy. She knows many girls who have one or more children at age 15 or 16. The other was dedicated to an HIV/AIDS prevention education program that encouraged teens to abstain from sexual activity to ensure safety from HIV.
A parallel event with huge impact was "Girls Speak Out" sponsored by UNICEF, the Working Group on Girls and others. Hundreds of American girls made a special trip to the UN to hear this panel, and of course many women attended. The moderators were Katie Couric and the 17-year-old girl who founded the NGO, Girls Learn International for middle and high school girls wanting to learn about human rights and advocate for girls around the world. Katie began by emphasizing that "to change the world, you have to learn about the world". The panelists were young women between the ages of 15 and 18. They were from Jordan, Thailand, Zambia, Armenia, Nepal and Democratic Republic of Congo. These young women showed mighty courage in telling their stories and those of the girls and women of their country. From Bangkok came stories of poor girls as young as eight years old sold into prostitution by their own families. The girl from Jordan spoke about cultural complexities that keep girls out of school. The girl from Congo spoke tearfully about her experience being recruited as a child soldier, full of hope to make a difference for her country and earn money for her family only to be submitted to the hell of sexual slavery. She touched the hearts of all in the room. Tears were shed as the audience stood and applauded her for over five minutes to show support and recognition for her courage to come so far and speak so honestly about her suffering. The Armenian girl talked about the isolation and vulnerability to exploitation of girls with disabilities. From Nepal came stories of lack of access to education. The Zambian girl, raped at age 9, was infected with HIV. These girls and their stories put a face on the grim reality of the suffering that many girls and women experience. It brought the reality home to those in attendance. Hopefully this panel serves to inspire everyone to further action in their own communities and nations.
In addition to the main sessions, caucusing, briefings and parallel events, there was much grassroots activity and brainstorming toward a fifth world women's conference. This movement touched the hearts and visions of many NGO representatives. Quite a number of groups pledged to continue the efforts to organize this to show unity to the world among the community of women, for the fulfillment of the Beijing Platform of Action created almost twelve years ago as an outcome document of the fourth world women's conference in Beijing, as well as determination and passion for the advancement of women worldwide.
The finale of the Commission on the Status of Women was the commemoration of International Women's Day on March 8th. It is a good time to remember that although many of us as women enjoy extensive rights and freedoms, 70% of the poor in the world are women. Half the agricultural work in the world is done by women, but women only own 1% of the land. Women and children suffer disproportionately in the wake of armed conflict, and so on. So we cannot say that we celebrate International Women's Day, instead it is a day to reflect on the reality of women's and girls' predicament both positive and detrimental. (Thanks to Susan Bradbury, contributor to this article.)