CSW: Why do we fight?

By Julia Diprose  fromYWCA of Australia. Julia is currently attending the 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York.

Since I found out I was coming to the Commission on the Status of Women #CSW (and bragging about it on Facebook) people have invariably reacted to the news with combinations of “That’s amazing! So, what is it exactly?”

To my chagrin (I am after all a communications professional) I have found answering this question rather difficult. It is only here in New York, deprived of real caffeine and sleep, and spending 16 hour days at the UN, that I have found myself able to answer the most basic of questions – what am I doing here?

julia2

Julia Diprose

The CSW Commission on the Status of Women is an international forum attended by delegations from 45 UN member states at United Nations Headquarters in New York. The Commission is the ultimate policy-making body on gender equality and the advancement of women. It meets annually to evaluate progress on gender equality, identify challenges, set global standards and formulate concrete policies to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment worldwide. The theme for the 58th Commission is: “Challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls.”

Ok, great. Now what does that mean?

At the end of the CSW a document of Agreed Conclusions is produced – it contains commitments that governments around the world make to ensure that the world tomorrow is a equal place for women. The Millenium Development Goals expire in 2015 and we are here to talk about what comes next.

The world’s not so bad, you think. I’m a clever, capable woman. I take care of myself and the idea that I can’t is fundamentally offensive. Beyonce exists. Tina Fey is killing it. We got this.

We forget, in our selfishness, in our loneliness that there is no better time in the world to be a woman than today. That’s true and it should be celebrated.

But.

A girl is born to a family with four children. There is no access to contraceptives and her mother cannot afford to feed four hungry mouths let alone one more No matter. She is born.

I won’t tell you what country she is from because she could be from anywhere. 222 million women around the world have no access to contraception. In the words of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka,  Executive Director of UN Women: When women have unwanted pregnancies they sign a contract with poverty.

Because food is tight and her brothers are prized, the girl grows up hungry. Her mother falls pregnant twice more and means get even more scarce. The costs of school uniforms is such that only two of the six children can be sent to school. The boys go.

It is difficult to make certain claims about womanhood, about sexuality, about feminism. Being a woman today is tremendously complicated and capturing the nuances of our experiences is fraught. Making generalities about men, about culture, about patriarchy and tradition is equally problematic. Everywhere good men stand with us.

But I want to state this explicitly.

Around the world today, women are prized as playthings. Their virginity defines them. Do not doubt that the idea that women could or should enjoy their own body is offensive to many. The plague of female genital mutilation is testament to that. The power and ownership of others continues to define women.

This little girl won’t go to school – won’t learn how to spell or how to count or how to play.

How can she develop the ability and wherewithal to flourish?

I look at my boyfriend’s nieces – teeny, lovely little things who have the utter confidence that comes from only ever being loved. Their beauty and innocence and shining promise is a delight.

How many little girls have never had that love?

And this little girl . She will not be taught about her own body. About what she deserves, about how it should be treated. About how it should be touched. Or not. About respect. All these things will make her vulnerable to abuse in the future.

Can there be a better argument for age appropriate sex education? To save one little girl trauma and invasion and violation.

And this little girl. Will she be subjected to violating and degrading practices? Will her sexuality be controlled by others? Will she be free of harm?

1 in 3 women around the world experience violence – being raped. Being beaten.

Every minute a young woman is newly infected with HIV.  An estimated 150 million young women and girls under 18 years suffered some form of sexual violence in a given year.

So this little girl gets her period at age 12 – a frightening and confusing experience for her as she has never been taught about her body.

And now she is a woman.

She is married – to a man ten, twenty, forty years older than her. A man not of her choosing. A man who sees her as property.

I write this and I cannot begin to fathom the terror of that first night. Maybe of every night.

She falls pregnant. A lifetime of malnourishment means that she has acute anaemia. A lifetime of hunger means that her growth has been stunted, her hips too slim.

She is a child. In no way equipped to support a pregnancy. There is no medical support. There is no support from family.

Giving birth is an excruciating process.

I am terrified of giving birth in the best medical facilities and with the best care money can buy. I cannot begin to fathom what these girls go through.

If she survives the pregnancy, and the birth, if she does not develop an obstetric fistula and the baby survives – the cycle will be perpetuated. We are letting girls and women slip through the cracks.

We are not doing enough, not nearly enough, for girls. For women.

I tell this story conscious of perpetuating a narrative that suggests violence against women is something that happens elsewhere – to other women in an other place.

Violence against women happens everywhere. 35% of girls and women around the world have experienced it. It is insidious. For some, it is having their genitals cut. For some, being burnt and beaten and whipped in the home. For some its the terror of a volatile, controlling partner. For some it’s a life of slavery – slavery that we thought we had eradicated.

Trafficking is in the top three most profitable industries in the world. Buying people is flourishing.

We cannot capture all their voices. But for all of those who cannot, or did not speak, I stand and weep with you. And I fight for you.

A document cannot ensure the end of violence. Only people can. But this document, that holds governments accountable to do more, is a part of something bigger. One piece in a vast puzzle.

I want to be a champion for women and girls at home and around the world.

And that’s why I’m here.

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