Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Sunday, Day 0 (Part One)

NGO (Non-governmental organization) CSW (Comission on the Status of Women) Consultation Day
The first day of NGO activity started in a blur as we raced downstairs into our cabs and to the Salvation Army.  When we arrived, we received our packets and stepped into what must have once been a grand theater in NYC. We immediately reserved seats with our jackets and then dispersed to hand out fliers for our event on Thursday. It is important that we advertise as much as we can so that we can get a good turnout for our event.
Before long we are out of fliers and we nestle down into our seats and face the stage as people continue to flock into the main level (where we are) and in the balcony above and behind us. We have to defend our seats at this point because there are many people who want our (very good) seats so that they won’t have to sit upstairs (too bad for them – the early bird gets the worm! – or in this case the seats :D).
Soon enough the Chair of the 2012 NGO CSW, Soon-Young Yoon, greets everyone and expresses her gratitude for all of us being here. Her introduction to the event is very appealing and uplifting even though I can’t even image how much pressure she is under right now. (Also – a cool fact she shared with us is that her name means “Peace Everlasting” – I wish my name was that cool!)
She also reminded us that March 8th is International Women’s Day and to celebrate and raise awareness there will be a march through the community! (a march in March … hahaha… oh, come on, it is a little funny…)
Then she introduced our first speaker of the morning, former President Michelle Bachelet. I love this women and I have never even met her. I joke quite a lot about wanting to be the President of the US one day… and to a certain extent I am only jesting because I can only imagine the stress and price that running a country has on oneself, body and soul. And the fact that even after that she is now the ED of UN Women… WOW. That is all I can really think and say. I hope that I can be that great of a woman or a person in general.
I’m going to go on a slight tangent here before I go into Ms. Bachelet’s speech. I extremely dislike the use of “Madam” as they introduced her as “Madam Bachelet.” First, why doesn’t “Ms.” Carry the same weight as “Mr.” – instead we feel like we have to use “Madam” when the history of the French use of the word means “lady or mistress of the house?” (and alternatively is used for the title of a woman who owns a brothel?!?!?!?) For those of you who know me you will understand why I’m going on this tangent. I feel like language is so important and this is a prime example of oppression through language. “Ms.” should carry the same weight as “Mr.” and when I am President I will be called “Ms. President.”
Alright back to Ms. Bachelet…
In her address she talked about four main themes or main areas that still need an incredible amount of work for the advancement of women. The first area that she spoke on is “Political Participation.” This is a super important area for growth. Women are severely underrepresented in governments all over the world (and in the US and NC – see Anuja’s presentation for more information!). Ms. Bachelet also used this speech to highlight the work of UN Women in the past year. (For those of you who may not know – UN Women is only a year old – it was created out of combining 3 other UN committees for women with the hope of creating a more effective advocacy and intervention body for women’s issues). 25 countries have received aid from UN Women in the past year for advancing the political participation of women through the Gender Equality Fund.
The next area Ms. Bachelet discussed was “Economic Empowerment.” Mar talks some about this in her presentation but this is really an issue that crosses into all other women’s issues. We need to continue to improve laws and policies so that women are required to receive the same treatment, opportunities and pay as men in any workplace environment.
The third area that was highlighted was the need to end all forms of violence against women. Ms. Bachelet suggested this was first through more standardized direct services available to any women who needs them. Then also to the pursuit of justice against the perpetrators and the importance of having more women in legal systems all over the world.
  Women in Peace and Security was the fourth area that was discussed. Women are key to the peacebuilding and peacemaking processes and when they fail to be involved in an equitable way peace processes crumble and fail. Right now only 5% of a UN peacekeeping budget in dedicated to involving women. This is detrimental to the peace process itself.
Ms. Bachelet suggested the future of UN Women included a global working group, called the Civil Society Working Group, that would create the ability for NGO’s to work more easily with UN Women. We need to always be looking forward and creating solutions that are relevant and applicable on the ground to women in various areas.

Saturday, Traveling Day

 4 A.M. comes way too early… I’m thankful I have such a wonderful partner

The Plane Ride
… was fairly uneventful.

Checking In…
Our rooms got upgraded (Beth’s doing of course!). We staying at the Beekman Tower Hotel. The building we are in was actually an old hotel for sorority women back in the day.   
By the end of this trip, I will surely have a list of “Things to remember.” One of these things is that Beth knows EVERYONE. And if she does not know someone she will make sure she does before they leave her sight. She has amazing networking skills that I hope I can somehow tap into.
 First visit to the UN building/Getting our Badges
There was quite a bit of craziness going into the UN building. It’s interesting to hear people speak so many different languages at once. It isn’t terribly well organized but it’s hard to organize such a vast amount of people in such a very small space. I’m glad for the slow pace because I’m getting to make notes and take things in. I got to talking to a woman beside me from Britain while standing in line waiting to have my picture taken for my badge. She said that the first year she came to CSW New York she got so mad because of all the disorganization only to find out that all of the people running the event from the coordinators to the people taking our pictures, are volunteers. How amazing is that!
From that point on, I do my best to ease the tension and stress in the room with kind “thank you so much’s” and a couple of smiles and jokes with the volunteers around me.  

Settling in…
Our rooms are wonderful. I’m so tired at this point in the day I really just want a nap. I sneak a couple of z’s until it’s time for us to meet with the mentors downstairs to go over what to expect tomorrow – our first full day of NGO – prepping us for the full week of CSW ahead. I have to say I’m pretty intimidated by all the information I know is sure to come my way in the next week. I don’t think there is any way I can fully prepare myself for what lies ahead. I feel so fortunate that we have Beth and Anita to tell us what to expect and Violet and Sue Ellen to bounce ideas off of!
During our meeting, Beth gives us a layout of what the week will look like:

Sunday – CSW NGO Consultation Day (Depart from the hotel at 8 AM sharp – don’t be late!)
-          In the morning we’ll get to hear from the director of UN Women and former President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet (whoa!!)
-          At the conference day we’ll get to hear from Leymah Gbowee (ga-bo-wee) – one of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winners!
-          Tomorrow evening we’re going to eat with a delegation of United States Association of the United Nations from San Francisco and talk about CEDAW!

-          First day of Official CSW and NGO parallel sessions begin.
-          Coordinating Meeting #2

-          CSW and NGO events
-          NGO Reception at the Turkish Center that evening

-          United States Mission at Noon
-          Dance for the celebration of International Women’s Day (Rutgers)

-          We present at 6:15!!

-          United States Mission at 9 AM for a panel on youth involvement
Such a full week! I’m ready to get started!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Two Words: Instance II

Instance 2: How I stepped up

Part of WomenNC's mission is promoting the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, or CEDAW. When a group of us Fellows were invited to attend a panel discussion at the US Mission for the United Nations, we were presented with the opportunity to engage with Melanne Verveer, who is US Ambassador at large for Global Women's issues, among others.

I typically do not ask questions at sessions, unless I have one that is particularly pressing. Even in a classroom setting, I tend to address my questions after the fact because generally, any questions I have are answered by the end of the discussion or lecture. I realized, since Verveer has a personal connection to CEDAW, I decided to step up: I represented WomenNC, and I wanted to bring up the question of why the US hadn't ratified CEDAW, and I wanted to get my answer from the source.

After the discussion, the audience members were invited to ask the panelists our questions. I raised my hand, and and a microphone was passed my way. I'll admit: while I do a fair amount of public speaking, this felt out of my comfort zone. Still, I was here to step up - so I asked the question I'd rehearsed in my head.

I was called on, and I stood.

"I'm Anuja Acharya, and I'm a senior in political science at North Carolina State University. I have been working on and will present research relating to the political participation of women, and as part of my study, I have looked at CEDAW and its provisions relating to the political participation of women. My question is, why hasn't the US ratified CEDAW yet?"

And the room erupted with applause - so much so that I doubt anyone heard anything after "ratified."

Verveer explained the political difficulties of ratification - it's a complicated process, and it's not taking priority in the Senate. Several more questions were asked and addressed.

Afterwards, several audience members approached me and thanked me for bring up CEDAW. Really, though, my lesson here wasn't why CEDAW has been ignored or what Verveer could do about it - I had brought it to attention. That was my contribution. It might not be much, but I stepped up.

Two Words: Instance I

I can sum up the most important lesson I learned at CSW in two words: step up.

Instance 1:
On Wednesday, I was missing my mom, so I decided to attend a session about mothers empowering daughters. This session was to be held by an Italian NGO. I was there early and the NGO people seemed to be running late, so I took a seat near a woman named Julia, and we started sharing our stories. Julia was at CSW representing a new NGO that sought to end female genital cutting. I was telling her about WomenNC when she glanced at the time. "You know, this session should have started 10 minutes ago," she said. "I wonder if I should just start a casual discussion for the audience here, while we wait?"

I didn't answer, thinking this was just a rhetorical question. She thought about it for a minute.

"I think I will."

She walked to the podium and almost instantly, the room fell quiet. Softly but confidently, she introduced herself.

"I'm Julia, and it seems that the people who are to run this session are running a bit late. So I was hoping, in the meantime, we might discuss an issue that is close to my heart: FGC. I know there are several of you here with that focus to your NGO's, so I thought we might have a little discussion."

The audience members nodded, and several raised their hands to volunteer to speak after her.

Julia continued, "I certainly don't want to drive this vehicle, but perhaps I could start us off and the rest of you could join in where you'd like." Positive murmurs sounded.

I found it surprising that the whole room was enthusiastic - here was a woman in the audience, just like anyone else, who was calmly and democratically taking charge of the group.

Julia then gave a brief overview of herself, her NGO, and what FGC was. Moreover, she clarified a question I had about FGC . I learned how calling it female genital mutilation has judgmental connotations and disregards a culture's traditional practices, while calling it female genital cutting allows activists to speak with people of cultures who perform cuttings frankly and matter-of-factly. Calling it cutting opens up a dialogue.

I had to leave early so I do not know if the original NGO session on mothers and daughters was ever held - but I did learn that Julia had the right idea. When no one was commanding the attention of the audience she did - and I walked away having learned something about FGC.

Some Lessons You Learn the Hard Way (Or, Sometimes it's the wrong Salvation Armies)

I used to think I don't make the same mistakes twice. It turns out, it's possible.

March 1st, 2012 will always be a day I hold dear. We WomenNC fellows presented our research, and the way our audience received us was overwhelmingly supportive. Still, there's nothing like waking up on the day you know you'll remember forever. Some people have butterflies in their stomachs. I had jackhammers.

I thought I could restore my zen by taking a trip to the Salvation Army to take in some NGO sessions that were being held there that morning. They were related to some pretty unusual topics - I hadn't been to any quite like their descriptions entailed.

I tried to hail a cab to take me to the Salvation Army. It was then, when I was standing on the side of the road with my hand in the air a la Serena Van der Woodsen, that I realized: I have no idea how to hail a cab. I have no idea which side of the road I need to be on (though, presumably, it's the right side). I have no idea if cabs are occupied with other passengers or not. I didn't even know how much to tip the driver. For goodness sake. What on earth was I doing, anyway?

I managed to awkwardly hail a cab in front of our hotel. The driver took my address and zoomed over to the Salvation Army building, where all the NGOs had met for our consultation day.

Except that it was deserted. The golden gates were boarded up and every office was locked. When an employee did arrive to unlock the door, her expression made it clear: she had no idea what a CSW NGO session was.

At this point, I'm having a flashback to downtown Raleigh, when I showed up at the Historic Oak district looking for Lillian's List when I really should have been somewhere in North Raleigh. Google got it wrong. Now Anuja did too.

It was clear that, wherever the sessions were being held, I was missing them. I felt guilty, like I had skipped class or something. Add this fact to the reminder that I would be presenting my research later that day and just like that, the jackhammers in my stomach were back.

I learned to calm myself down that day. I found a charming cafe not far from the Salvation Army, and bought a latte and a cookie and forced myself to calm down. I even called my friend Erica in Raleigh and we chatted a while, which helped with the jackhammers more than anything.

When I was ready, I awkwardly hailed another cab back to the hotel. No harm, no worry.

Just a bit of thought

This CSW experience has inspired me in many ways. Yesterday i went to a session about age. The women there came from different parts of the world. They raised the issue of old women which is often forgotten and left aside. They talked about how women after the age of 49 lose their productivity and are just forgotten. That really touched me. They informed us they are trying to get a resolution passed or added to the CEDAW and that UN Women will put it as one of its priorities. I was so lucky to be in that room to hear the women speak.

We also had the opportunity to go to the US Permanent Mission to the UN building. There was a panel about women rights and including younger generations to this movement. There were many students from Girls International. It was wonderful to hear them speak and how their passion aligns with all our passions for women rights here in the United States and in the world.

Enhancing CSW

I am so appreciative of WomenNC for giving me the opportunity to attend CSW. Meeting the other conference participants has certainly been a highlight of the past week.

While my experience here has been overwhelmingly positive, there are several thoughts I have in terms of restructuring elements of CSW to be even more effective. As the men and women who comprise CSW compile recommendations for the United Nations, I have a few recommendations for CSW.

1. Include more men. I won't discuss this too much, as this has been the subject of my past posts, but CSW needs to embrace more men into the framework of discussion. While men may sometimes be part of the challenges women face, they also have the enormous potential to be integrated into the solution.

2. Better integrate youth into CSW. Only several organizations, WomenNC being one, bring youth to CSW. Within CSW, youth need to play a larger role. Add a youth member to the CSW planning board. Incorporate youth into plenary speeches. Have youth representatives speak on specialized topics, not just in generic "rah-rah we are the future" terms. Do not dismiss the presence of youth. Support us with more than just lip-service. Reach out to us. Offer your advice and mentorship. We want to listen.

3. Focus on presenting implementable solutions, not just general recommendations. If CSW sessions emphasizes solution-based approaches, focusing on best practice models of existing businesses and organizations, CSW attendees will leave with more tangible ways to move forward. We need to move past the regurgitated, albeit important, statistics about the status of women. Best practice models help us to gain a deeper understanding.

CSW has been unbelievably powerful, but I believe that by making such adjustments CSW will better shape the changes it seeks to create.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Hopeful for Health (Panels)

Good afternoon! I’m back in the UN again (the wifi is AWESOME here). Today, I went to three panels on “Sextortion”, Migration of Rural Women, and Girls as a Tool for Change. As you might guess, all three had different focuses and approaches lead by women and men from around the world. Through the last four days, I’ve seen panels on disaster relief in the Asia Pacific, micro-financing in Sub-Saharan Africa, technology as a tool for change, and reproductive rights in Russia. I’m enjoying attending such a diverse range of panels because I’m realizing the interconnected nature of all of these issues, especially when seen through the lens of health. Coming to CSW 56 I expected to find panels labeled “health issues of rural women”, but I’ve only seen general panels that address health of distinctly female health issues, i.e. sexual and reproductive health and maternal health. These are GREAT health topics to focus on, don’t get me wrong! But where are the panels on obesity, cancer, and diabetes (more “gender neutral” health issues) influencing rural women?

I was so determined to find this elusive health panel the first few days that I got pretty bummed at its absence. However, I’m now realizing that learning about education and land rights of rural women is JUST as important to learn because they are social determinants of health. The World Health Organization defines social determinants of health as the “conditions in which people grow, live, work and age”, i.e. the environment of their lives. For instance, access to a health clinic relies on transportation (can a woman miss work, and who watches the children?), literacy to fill out forms (can the woman read?), and treatment (does she have funding from family or microfinancing to pay for medical bills for herself and/or her family?). CSW is providing me an opportunity to understand the factors that effect the environment of rural women's lives. Seeing the incredible amount of opinions laid out at panels reminds me collaboration will provide these essential perspectives to understand social determinants of health, and only then can I focus on the public health issues that emerge as a result.

I can’t wait to present with the rest of the WomenNC fellows in just three hours! So excited!

Love, Abby Bouchon

Stronger Partnerships

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.

the big day is here

The CSW has been going wonderfully. I can truly say i am inspired by the works of so many women. They all came from different walks of life. There were women from the US, Central and South America, Canada, Middle East, Asia and Australia. I have yet to meet women from Antarctica. Basically, you get the point. It was well attended and for good reason.
Two days ago i went to a governmental meeting. This is where governments sent delegations to speak on their behalf. What i found amazing is how they were mostly saying the same thing in different sentences. They all started with how their country is doing a wonderful job about empowering women and having a gender equality policies. Only few delegations were actually putting these policies in practice. It was just empty words and empty promises. I am glad to experience this side of events. From then on i went to NGO events.
Today is the day we present our research. I am looking forward to it and at the same time a bit nervous i will forget to mention something. All in all, wish us luck.