Tuesday, March 29, 2011

CSW's effects on a (n almost) graduate

My undergraduate career is quickly coming to a close in the next couple months, and I am personally viewing my graduation as a rain cloud over the date May 14 on my calendar. It’s not that I am not ready to graduate and finish my undergraduate studies; it’s simply that I am feeling the same senior anxiety that I am sure most experience before we go through a huge change. The last 16 years of my life have been lived in education. Because I have decided to not go immediately to graduate school, I will be stepping away from any formal education, and into a different reality.

I would probably feel a little more assured if I had a job lined up for after graduation, but that search is continuing until I find success. My main problem is that everything I am interested in being involved with is likely ran by a nonprofit or nongovernmental organization. If anyone DOESN’T have money expand their staff in today’s economy, you better believe that it’s nonprofits and NGOs.

What’s amazing to me right now is that the jobs I am researching and applying for are all rooted in my experience at CSW. Because I met so many powerful and amazing activists at the United Nations last month, I am inspired to follow their example in creating social change. I feel committed to advancing the status of women so much so that I want to spend the next year or two before graduate school working in the field of nonprofits and NGOs. At CSW, I met so many brave individuals committing their time and energy to humanist causes. They do what they do, not because there is a salary involved, but because they are conscious and impassioned individuals who wouldn’t know how to turn their heads away from the trials women face around the globe. I seek to follow their lead and join the movement towards gender equity.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Representations of women

At CSW, women represent not only themselves, but their countries and other women within them. As a woman who has read about women's and feminist movements in various contexts, it was extremely exciting and tangible to hear from and meet with the women who I had read and heard so much about for the past four years. It's so different to hear directly from women about the issues they and other women in their countries face rather than through the filtered lens of a scholarly journal article or book. I am so grateful that those exist, and going to CSW is only possible with a certain level of privilege due to the money it takes to get and stay there, but I cannot emphasize enough the importance of women speaking from their own contexts and experiences in a very direct, personal way.

This is what I have been relaying to my family members and friends who have been asking me about my experiences at CSW 55. This is one of the most important aspects of the fellowship; hearing from and connecting with women who are often represented as ahistorical, or outside of history, in popular narratives. I am reminded of the Fiji feminist I met who was finishing up her graduate degree in Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers University during a session I attended called "Pacific Women Claiming Space in the International Arena." Sadly, I knew little about the specific challenges Pacific Island women face, as they had not been a major part of my Women's Studies courses and I had not had a reason to follow their activity due to my privilege as a U.S. citizen and white person. The woman spoke genuinely and passionately about women's activism in the midst of Fiji's volatile political climate and commented on the West's imagining of the Pacific Islands as solely the Philippines. She said that it was important to recognize the rich history of women's organizing and movements in Fiji and that the Pacific Islands face very specific issues that cannot be collapsed into the larger Asian grouping in which these countries reside within the United Nations continental areas.

I was honored to be in this woman's presence. Feminism and women's studies are all about building from your own personal experiences and this is exactly what this woman had been a part of and relayed to all of us in the room. Her remarks would not have been nearly as meaningful or real had they come from a scholar who had studied these movements, but had never been a part of them, or from a non-Fijian. They were significant because they came straight from a woman who was a native of Fiji, understood the history and politics of the country, and had worked on the ground in the feminist movement for four years.

It is crucial that we create more opportunities for women to hear from women who have worked or are working on the ground because they have a unique lens into the various factors that shape the success of women's movements. If women cannot hear from those who are natives of and working directly with the contextual issues within their country of origin, then they will not be able to link the human rights frameworks through which they operate to the practical programs and initiatives that are derived from community needs. This is why I believe it is crucial to consider convening these conferences in different places each year or every few years to ensure that women who do not have access to CSW can represent themselves and so that those few women who are there from Fiji or Mozambique are not expected to speak for their entire race or nationality.

Will sexual and reproductive rights always be contentious?

I don't know why I was so surprised at the controversial energy I encountered in many of the sessions I attended related to sexual and reproductive health and rights at CSW. I have known for a long time how contentious women's sexual and reproductive rights are and that these are often narrowed down to solely the issue of abortion, but it's different to be in the midst of people with extremely different views, listening to their perspectives and feeling the tension between and within all of them.

I noted this tension in a session during which the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) spoke about the implementation of comprehensive sexuality education programs in conjunction with international NGOs in many Latin American countries. The purpose of this session was to discuss why considering gender and rights in the context of sexual and reproductive health information and services is crucial for fostering gender equality. I wasn't expecting the flood of questions that poured out from angry audience members. A woman from Mexico City asked why IPPF was implementing comprehensive sexuality education programs in Mexico when we didn't even have these in the majority of the U.S. Another woman challenged the panel to speak to PlannedParenthood's historical involvement in the eugenics movement and why the majority of PlannedParenthood centers are concentrated in minority communities (*I would like to note that IPPF and PlannedParenthood are two different entities with separate funding streams and purposes.) The hot, crowded room of over 100 people sat in awkward silence as the panel fielded these questions that brought up the larger issues of privilege and oppression, which fueled the disagreements that were happening during the session.

As many of you have probably heard or seen, women's sexual and reproductive is currently facing a serious attack in the U.S. with many bills being proposed that would cut public funding for the crucial sexual and reproductive health services that organizations like PlannedParenthood provide to women of various races, classes, and nationalities. One in three women in the U.S. has had an abortion and over half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended. With rates of domestic violence as high as one in four women, I believe that there is certainly a link between gender-based violence and the high rate of unintended pregnancies, as well as evidence that our sexuality education policies and programs are not providing adolescents with the comprehensive information that they need to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health.

In my opinion, the socially constructed category of gender and the gender inequalities that women face are at the root of all of these issues. The dissent between pro-life and pro-choice groups, abstinence-only and comprehensive sexuality education advocates isn’t about the services being provided or performed. It’s about the fear that women will break out of their expected “roles” and be in power, autonomous to make their own decisions independently and freely. Until the socially constructed category of gender and gender inequality is truly addressed through educational initiatives and policy changes, sexual and reproductive rights will remain an extremely polarizing and controversial topic. This right, along with women’s rights to fair employment, pay, and safety, cannot truly be addressed without addressing women’s historical and current subordinate status and the intersecting racial, class, and national identities that also shape women’s inferior status.