Tag Archives: collective voices

Advice for a worried youth leader

CV-6-International Alliance of Women youth jumps
International Alliance of Women youth jumps


Dear Soon-Young Yoon:

I have been invited to participate in the next High-Level Political Forum to report on stories about young women and trafficking. I want to put my journalism training to good use, work from the human rights perspective and get more involved with the UN as well. The problem is that I am not sure that I am qualified to be involved in global issues at the UN. Do I really belong in the company of all those ambassadors? Maybe you can suggest another young feminist who has kept up with international affairs. I even missed the l995 Beijing women’s conference. Please advise.

Sincerely yours,

Worried New Generation Leader


Dear Worried New Generation Leader:

Here is my advice about how to get involved with the UN:

  • Don’t give up. These meetings should be for persons just like you. We need global interactions between leaders and managers in “civil society” — not just reunions of “professional” conference goers. The women’s movement needs new blood.
  • A personal note — complain more. Youth groups are routinely trotted out to do cultural performances, but they often are left out in the cold when it comes to getting on the speakers’ list. Too often, young women are polite and don’t say what is really on their mind. I know it’s not easy. More veteran feminists may not take the time to help. But if you don’t get fair treatment, let the president of the official conference know that your problems are the UN’s problems.
  • Stick to what you know — but keep learning more. What is often missing from these meetings is a heavy dose of reality. There will probably be a lot of statements about how governments have failed to keep their promises. But there could be a shortage of good success stories. You are the best expert about your personal and community experiences. Learn more about your group’s history, its leadership and financial situation, and make suggestions on how the UN, governments, businesses and NGOs can better support youth.
  • Know the UN political talk. You don’t have to agree with the UN to maneuver well in its midst. But you do have to be well armed with savvy lingo and expertise. On environment issues, I would start with the UN document, “Agenda 21,” which includes major recommendations to solve global environment problems and positions related to gender inequality. For a little fun, try quoting from commitments for the media made in the Beijing Platform for Action adopted in 1995. Since few finance ministers attended that meeting, most of them will probably be unaware of what these commitments were. Even women’s groups are not well acquainted with what that document has to say about communications, information and the media.
  • Learn the facts. There are two steps you can take to become an instant expert on how to be effective at the UN. One is the Non-governmental Liaison Service (NGLS) publication, “Working with ECOSOC—an NGOs Guide to Consultative Status.”  This is a good primer about the UN process as well as how UN-approved NGOs (approved by the Economic and Social Commission or ECOSOC) can participate at the UN. Another is to read extensively before you make statements so that you make them to the point and powerful.
  • Remember that gender is a youth issue, too, so join the women’s caucus or women’s major group meetings.  An understanding of gender is absolutely crucial to grasping youth issues, particularly those dealing with sexual and reproductive health and human rights. But remember that you can be an expert without ever having heard about the UN conferences on women. Just trust your own experience and go from there.
  • Young women’s rights are human rights. If you go on to pursue your concern for human rights, there is no better place than the UN to learn and act. These days we need to have more young people involved. Many of the international treaties that could be used to protect your rights are seldom used. For example, violence against women is often directed at girls. Like adult women, young women can also claim their right to protection against all forms of sexual, mental and physical violence by referring to international covenants. Young women’s human rights issues — sexual violence, rape, sexual torture, forced pregnancy, and domestic violence — should all be highlighted at youth assemblies. Similarly, it is important to call on governments to protect those rights through legislation and social services.

A final word of advice: be proud, but not too full of yourself.  Remember that after years of activism, you are very qualified to join the “eminent” group of organizers and leaders. Carry your issues to a global level. Bring them to the attention of heads of state. Why should you give up so soon?

The Commission on the Status of Women

If you don’t know what “CSW “stands for, you can join 95% of the world’s women. I first learned of the UN CSW in 1980 when I worked with the UN Secretariat for the second UN World Conference on Women. I was a novice in the Secretariat and had to catch up on endless UN acronyms. What was this “CSW?” To the outside world, it could stand for almost anything—“Combat Submission Wrestling” and “Certified Specialist of Wine” came to mind.

I soon learned that “CSW” stood for the Commission on the Status of Women. The CSW was founded in 1946 (the oldest of six UN Commissions), only one year after the UN’s creation, to “promote the principle of equal rights for men and women.” Specifically, it oversees the progress of legally binding treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and works with UN Women, the main UN body responsible for implementing programmes for gender equality and women’s empowerment. From a big-picture perspective, the CSW is meant to be a catalyst to ensure that the UN and world governments live up to their promises to women for equality, development and peace. That means it has to do a review and assessment of progress in implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, including the all-important albeit unglamorous provision on “Institutional mechanism for the advancement of women,” which includes all of the ministries of gender and women’s affairs.

UN in New York during CSW 58
UN in New York during CSW 58

That’s a tall order. But the Commission has never shied away from challenges, of responding to the international women’s movement’s demands for change while upholding inter-governmental and UN rules. The legacy of the CSW goes back to the international women’s movement and human rights movements in the l930s that eventually led to the UN’s founding in 1945. The Commission steered the process for the UN world women’s conferences in Mexico (19975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1990) and Beijing (1995).

What can the CSW contribute to the United Nations? Innovation has to come from somewhere within the UN. I believe the CSW is a shining example of how to build a strong international organization, making sure that the trio of political forces —governments, social movements and the UN—come together to defend women’s human rights.  But the CSW will simply rehash old ideas if we don’t take the responsibility to set it on the right course. The CSW in 2015 will be an excellent time to make sure that creative ideas flourish.  NGOs gathered at that event will have a chance to speak out on how the UN’s post-2015 agenda on sustainable development, peace and security, climate change, and science and technology can support gender equality and women’s empowerment.

What can you contribute to the CSW session next year?

Take your daughter to vote

Father and Daughter
Father and Daughter

During the last presidential election in the US, school children debated the issues, often with naive earnestness. One fifth grader said to me, “well, I don’t think past presidents kept their promises. Do you see a policeman on every corner?” I told her I didn’t recall anything of the sort, although I agreed that keeping campaign promises was important.

The next presidential election will be the central theme of many educational projects. Relying on paper voting booths and hand-cut campaign banners, children will aspire to imitate grown-up politics. Some will join the revelry of a mock convention and make wonderfully short-winded speeches. They will practice citizenship as if their futures depended on it. They will also be rewarded for good behavior in participatory politics. Apathy in this setting gets an “F,” not an “A.”

What happens between these years of imitation citizenry and real life? What can explain the average viewer’s preference for mindless television to the serious business of choosing a mayor, senator or president?

Something is amiss. If the average citizen’s dream is “freedom FROM politics” this will soon be a reality. The Center for the Study of the American Electorate reported that about 57% of eligible voters exercised their right to vote in the last presidential election. That leaves 43% who stayed away from the polls. If 5% were sick and another 1% was blown away by natural disasters, that still leaves a third of the eligible voting population in the “I don’t feel like voting” category. Compare this to elections in Thailand, South Africa and Indonesia — the so-called developing world — where more than 70% of voters show up at the polls; America looks like a government of the elite few who get to the polls.

It is particularly worrisome that less than half of eligible women voters participated in presidential elections. Not that women always vote for feminist causes. In most countries, there is no guarantee that women will support women’s rights. Raufa Hassan, a human rights activist, who ran against conservative religious leaders in Yemen got less that a third of women’s votes. She found out the hard way that there is a “feminist gap” dividing women voters as well as a “gender gap” between women and men.

Nevertheless, demographic trends favor increasing women’s influence in politics. In most industrialized countries, women voters now outnumber men. If women are well informed and willing to take the lead, they can make a major difference. For example, The League of Women Voters polls showed that in the 103rd Congress, women legislators voted for more “family-friendly” causes than did men. 91% of the women supported the ban on assault weapons, whereas only 66% of the men voted in favor of that measure.

But to make this all happen, something has to compel women, particularly young women, to jump into the voting pool. Maybe what is missing is the link between what happens in the classroom and what goes on at home. The homework –the practice of citizenship rights– needs more attention from parents. Perhaps we have relied too much on teachers to drive home the meaning of the democratic creed. After all, they can only give students a taste of how democracy should work. The lessons learned at school have to be reinforced at home.

Why not model a new campaign on the successful “take your daughter to work” program? Why not start a movement to “Take your daughter to vote?” Show children how names are registered, how votes are tallied and what mysteries lie behind the black curtain. For a son or a daughter, a childhood outing with a parent to vote could be the most important influence on his or her future political life. Then, classroom lessons would have meaning, not as an assignment, but as a family tradition that can be passed on to others.