This post was written the first day of CSW, but due to internet troubles is only being posted now. So sit back in your seat and I'll take you back to day one of CSW...
As I begin to process my first day of sessions at CSW, I am struck by not only the diversity of conference attendees, but by the diversity of passions and the diversity of values represented. Sometimes these intense passions manifest themselves in heated debates – many of which I had the chance to stand witness to today.
Today one of the most interesting sessions I attended was one that I had not expected to hear. I wandered into a panel on the plight of widows in Nigeria with not a clue of what to expect nor any previously established interest in the subject. Cultural tradition has not been kind to the widows of Nigeria. Women often cannot inherit their deceased husband’s property, and many times are pressured to remarry within the family of her in-laws. One woman spoke of a PhD in public health who was required to drink the water used to wash her dead husband’s body, despite protesting the mental and physical health consequences which she knew were to come.
The debate that followed the retelling of such personal horrors was nearly as surprising as the stories themselves. One of the panelists was a male pastor (one of the few males represented at CSW). His thesis suggested that women, not men, are responsible for the perpetuation of such treatment of other women. Women, he posited, control the cultural practices of communities, as women are more reticent to abandon long standing cultural norms. The room erupted in sounds of many languages and many tones – some applauding and many outraged. Many felt uncomfortable placing any fault on those who fall victim to such transgressions of human rights, feeling that men deserved the brunt of the blame. This heated debate addresses a critical element of CSW – how should we understand responsibility for inequality and in what ways can both men and women generate the capacity for change?
We must break the notion that men are the root of the problem and that women are the frustrated victims. Women have agency, which may be used for good and bad. In the case of Nigerian widows, women often conduct the practices that others decry, while others simply do not act out against it. Doing nothing in the face of gender inequality is its own form of agency. It is an active choice to ignore a critical challenge. Painting women as entirely innocent is a flawed perspective, as is removing all the blame from men. Men and women are both responsible for creating systems of oppression. Women must take action, but not alone. Coalition building serves to unite both men and women for the same cause. So few men have been in attendance at CSW; and we have all seemed pleasantly shocked that any are here at all. We must stop being surprised when men want to support women. We need to demand and expect it – just as we should expect women to use their advocacy to shape change rather than to reinforce the status quo.
CSW is clearly a powerful forum for the spread of ideas and passions, but imagine how much more effective it would be if men did not feel demonized by its messages. Only when women and men create united coalitions and partnerships can the change that we seek be achieved.