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.
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?