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?


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.


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.

A Post-2015 Vision for Gender Justice


Nive Sharat Chandran sharing the Young Women Want Call to Act with Helen Clark, Head of UN Development Programme and former Prime Minister of New Zealand

By Nive Sharat Chandran fromYWCA of New Zealand. Nive is currently attending the 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York.

As a young woman, I know from my vast experience working in communities across Aotearoa/New Zealand that young women play a vital role in building communities and nations. Therefore, I strongly feel that it is important that in the post 2015 framework we recognise that young women are different from young men and that the one size fits all approach undermines efforts to effect change and recognise diversity. Only when we recognise the vital role of young women will we be able to achieve gender justice in the Post-2015 agenda.

In order to recognise the important role young women play in the world, the World YWCA conducted a survey asking young women from across the globe what is the future we want. This survey has produced one of the core priorities of the YWCA movement is call to action document titled “Her Future”. During, this year’s Commission on the Status of Women which is currently taking place in New York, USA I have the opportunity to represent the World YWCA as a short- term advocacy intern. Part of my role is to promote “Her Future” and ensure that young women and girls are central to the post 2015 agenda. In a meeting with the UN Development Programme Agency I personally handed Helen Clark, Head of UN Development Programme and former prime minister of New Zealand, a copy of “Her Future”. Helen Clark is one of my SHERO’s!

The World YWCA, actively engages and consults with young women and gives opportunities for leadership. For example, majority of our boards across the globe have young women on them, being a part of the decision-making processes and ensuring there is a strong youth focus in everything we do.

While I have been talking about the importance of young women, I have to acknowledge the importance of women of all ages in progressing gender equality and justice. I recognise that women of all ages bring in wisdom and insights that can influence and shape a young women’s choices. Therefore I also believe in a model of intergenerational leadership and dialogue and feel that it is essential in achieving gender justice.

Another key issue facing young women is violence against women and girls which is a global issue and therefore should form a core priority of the post-2015 agenda. This is an issue that is very close to my heart, having worked in an NGO called Shakti in New Zealand, we continue to deal with a lot of violence against women especially among the marginalised communities that are migrants and refugees. These communities tend to use culture and often religion as an excuse for the abuse and violence towards women and girls. But no scripture or religious text in my opinion condones oppression and violence towards women. I am a strong believer in promoting dialogue to change social norms and attitudes, which perpetuates these practices.

One of core issues that I am passionate about ending within my generation is early and forced marriage with occurs in both developed and developing countries. Early and forced marriage is a human rights issue.

This practice entrenches gender equalities, and undermines the right of the girl or young woman to fully and freely participate in decisions affecting them. It also prevents them from living in a world free from all forms of discrimination, coercion, stigma and violence. Often these young women or girls are exploited into slavery and servitude. This harmful practice also undermines their right to education, health – including sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Therefore in order to achieve the future that young women like myself want, our vision for the post-2015 agenda reflects their call for action. In the Post-2015 agenda, we want the human rights based framework to be the core of agenda. This framework also needs to be embedded in all international, national and regional frameworks.

We want to retain the gender equality as a primary goal within the new agenda as well as to mainstream gender across all goals and targets. This will ensure gender equality and justice.

We also strongly want the Post-2015 agenda to be accountable in terms of having effective monitoring, and evaluation of future goals and targets that strengthens national ownership. As well as, promotes partnerships among governments, civil society and private sector.

We need to ensure the voices of 860 million young women are counted in the Post-2015 agenda!

The Sexualisation of Women and Girls


By Devan Drabik; YWCA of USA. Devan is currently attending the 58th Session on the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations Head Quarters in New York. She shares her views after attending one of the side events. 

Flip through a fashion magazine, turn on the television, or listen to the lyrics of popular songs and unfortunately, you will quickly find a common theme: the sexualisation of women and girls. The images are steadily becoming more graphic and the messages are becoming more offensive. It is a tragic commentary on our society that sexualised messages have become so commonplace that many people have grown blind to the seriousness of this offense and often don’t acknowledge its devastating social impact.

At the United Nations CSW58, this alarming issue is being raised on the stages of parallel events.  Dr. Shari Miles- Cohen from the American Psychological Association (APA) explained that the inappropriate portrayal of women and girls in the media is not only negatively affecting women, but is also contributing to the misperception many men have about the female gender.

According to APA, sexualisation occurs “when a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics; or when a person is sexually objectified — that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making.”

Not only are sexual images becoming more prevalent in the media, these images themselves are becoming almost pornographic in content. Advertisements for clothing, perfume, and even cars can be seen featuring women in degrading poses, and some ads have gone so far as to include disturbing images that reflect acts of violence and sexual assault against women.

In the United States, Dolce & Gabbana ran an advertisement that depicted a woman being pinned down in a compromising position by a man positioned on top of her, while three other men looked on. In Australia, Calvin Klein ran an advertisement that showed a young woman being held down and undressed by a man, while a second man held her head on to his lap. In Italy, Relish (an Italian fashion company) ran a series of billboards that depicted police officers groping two models.

The boundary lines have been further blurred by the blending of adult sexuality with messages targeting pre-pubescent girls. A few examples include Victoria’s Secret’s new “Bright, Young Things” line which targets pre-teens and young teenagers, and features thongs that read “Feeling Lucky?”; a Sketchers ad featuring Christina Aguilera in a schoolgirl outfit with her top unbuttoned, licking a lollipop; Bratz and Monster High dolls dressed in shockingly short miniskirts and tight shirts, some imprinted with words like “Babe”. Recently, Target released a controversial image of their Junior Hipster swimsuit that Today.com called “egregious photoshop shenanigans” depicting a model with proportions that are not physically possible.

This type of sexualisation can have severe consequences on the psyche of young girls. The Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls found that sexualisation has been linked with negative body image, low self-esteem, depression, and eating disorders. According to Women’s Health Queensland, “A particularly alarming consequence (of sexualisation) is self-sexualisation, where girls begin to treat themselves as a sexual object. The recent phenomenon of girls posting semi-nude and nude pictures of them on the internet is an extreme example of self-sexualisation.”

So what can we do about this growing negative phenomenon? Let’s begin by taking a stand and sharing our voices with the advertisers who thrive on the sexualization of women and girls. In this age of social media, when people feel it is important to share the most mundane details of their day, we can take advantage of a more altruistic use of these valuable platforms to let the media know that we will no longer stand for inappropriate and degrading portrayal of the female gender. We can also file a consumer complaint to show advertisers and retailers that we demand a higher standard.

At home, we need to be aware of the messages we are sending to our children. We can be careful to make wise decisions when buying clothes for girls, and teach them how to carry themselves with self-respect. It is our responsibility to remind our daughters that beauty comes in many shapes, sizes and colors. Equally as important, we must take the time to teach young men and boys about gender equality; we have the power to block inappropriate websites and television programs, and encourage dialogues with young men that focus on the achievements of their female peer and not on their physical appearance.

By standing together, we can change the way the media portrays women and girls, and make these offensively inappropriate messages a thing of the past.

Oh Mirriam – That Was Abduction, Kidnapping and Torture

By Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, General Secretary of the World YWCA, shares her views of the story of Mirriam Enerstrida Michelo; a child bride. 

She spoke slowly, firmly and clearly, though not in so many words. Each word was piercing and touching to the bone.


Mirriam Enerstrida Michelo, 20, from Zambia, with Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. Photo: Marina Cavazza.

“It was in 2003 and I was in grade 7. I was 12 years old. My mother informed me that I was to be married to this big man. After that I stopped going to school. They put me in this small room. I was sleeping on bricks. I was kept naked. I was taught how to handle a man. It was there for 3 months. I was then rescued by the YWCA and the Victim Friendly Unit of the Police”.  Mirriam, sharing her story as survivor of forced and child marriage at the UN Human Rights Council this week.

At first, I thought I had not heard clearly. She was taken against her will and kept in confinement for 3 months, naked! When she resisted, or complained they would beat her up. This was her own parents and her own community. The prospective groom had paid her parent some bride price. Indeed poverty, one could say. Neither culture nor poverty can be used to justify this treatment of girls.

As she narrated her story, I could feel a lump on my throat. Injustice, abduction, kidnapping torture, violation, abuse, inhuman and degrading treatment are some of the words that rushed to my mind. All these are criminal acts.

What really happened during those 3 months, only Mirriam knows!  At least,  I know that she did sing a special song, and it gave her hope.

And I still search for justice. Yes, at least the Zambian police was proactive and responsive. Yes, they were at hand to act as a true “Victim Friendly Unit”, and rescued her. Yes, Mirriam finally found emergency shelter, went back to school and finished her secondary education. One day, hopefully soon, she will be a nurse, now that some angel answered her prayers and she got a scholarship.

But my mind wonders back again, to that day and that room where Mirriam was confined. How many girls have been held there against their will? How many have endured the torture and trauma of being prepared for sexual abuse and rape? It is clear that when a marriage is forced, sexual encounter is without consent. Therefore cased of forced marriage are all cases of sanctioned rape!

I am searching for words. Girls like Mirriam, should not be called BRIDES. Should we really continue to talk about child and forced “marriage”? The essence of marriage is love, mutual respect and consent. Is society not giving a moral and legal cloak to a criminal, socially abhorrent practice, by continuously referring to “child and forced marriage”?

For sure, we can all roll up our sleeves and end this practice within a single generation. It’s a moral, legal, political, economic and social imperative. Who are we to deny 39,000 girls each day a world of education and opportunities? I remain on my feet, with the Mirriams of this world. Silence and inaction is NOT an option.

Some sobering fact: this year, 14 million girls — some as young as eight years old — will be married against their will.

Let Girls be Girls and Not Mothers

inno2By: Inunonse Ngwenya; YWCA of Zambia. Inunonse attended the 6th African Regional Conference on Sexual and Reproductive Health and she now shares her views. 

“In every woman there is great potential to excel in life. Womanhood is a phase where young girls cross over to become adults and responsible citizens of society.”

Women in Alternative Action (WAA) the host Organisation invited and were honoured to invite participants to the 6th African Regional conference on Reproductive health and rights held in Yaoundé Cameroon on February 3rd – 7th, 2014.  The theme for the Conference was ‘Eliminating Women and Girl’s sexual and Reproductive health Vulnerabilities in Africa’.

The objectives of the conference were as follows:

  • To identify promising and best practices at eliminating women and girls reproductive health vulnerabilities
  • To facilitate knowledge management and programmes to enhance development agency
  • To Enhance women and girls programmes in the regional and global development agenda, including ICPD Beyond 2014 and the Post-2015 Development Agenda

Sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are usually understood as the rights of all people regardless of their nationality, age, sex, gender and health, including HIV status, to make informed and free choices with regard to their own sexuality and reproductive well-being on the condition that these decisions do not infringe on the rights of others.

For whatever reason, it happened to me and it can happen to anyone else.  Being forced into early marriage by my parents will not allow me condemn myself to suffer for the rest of my life. I believe this information can inspire many who are in the same difficult situations in their lives. People give up in life because the lack inspiration – never should any young mother give up because along the way they will meet amazing people who will make their dark day bright.

We came to know that as young leaders of the movement our role and aim is to work together to shape a better tomorrow. People will have no incentive to change their lifestyle towards sustainability unless they are first made aware of their own problems which exist, their own role in perpetuating these problems, and their potential contributing to the solutions. We have existing environmental processes that help individuals to:

  • Acknowledge the existing environmental problems and recognise their role in them
  • Understand the links between their everyday actions and the lives of other people
  • Identify positive actions they can take

In many parts of Africa considerable gender inequalities remain which play a role in jeopardising women’s rights and access to SRHR. High levels of mobility and mortality are attributed to a shortage both in breadth and quality of SRH services which are usually easily preventable problems in developed countries. Youth remain at risk and require both school and out of school based family and sex education. Young women require access to information on sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV counseling and testing, psychology and medical treatment related to sexual violence.

Youths are quite obviously a key population for SRHR services and thus this indicator is an excellent measure of what the future will hold for adults in the region with regard to SRHR. Young people are the backbone of our countries and as a young leader I believe that the most effective approach to improving women’s sexual and reproductive health is to integrate all services contraception, maternal health care, counseling, safe and legal abortion, prevention of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, under one roof.

 Women and girls need compassionate care for a variety of health concerns. We also believe that young people need age appropriate, friendly programmes with accurate information about their health and integrate human rights and gender equality. Policies and implementation must make this a reality.

The burden of HIV and AIDS continues to be a major public major health problem with profound implication, besides the vulnerabilities of women and girls to HIV as compared to men, remains particularly high in most regions. These relate to poor sexual and reproductive health decision making, lack of access and ability to use modern contraceptives methods, economic dependence, illiteracy and poor political decision power.

As young women and young people we recommend that:

  • We be included in the decision making and implementation process at all levels because we have a better understanding of our problems and priorities; We shall continue to claim our spaces in these important meetings and conferences;
  • We have spaces before these international conferences to share our agendas with our leaders.

To conclude development will not be sustainable unless it originates from the concept of local development based on the efforts of the local population who respect priorities that they themselves define.

Where Religion and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights Meet.

By: Hendrica Okondo, Global Programme Manager SRHR and HIV and AIDS- Focal Point: AfricaImage

Although religious beliefs are a barrier for women to claim their rights, there are opportunities to work with religious leaders as not all religious groups are restrictive. There are some who are listening and meeting women in the difficult situations they live in. One way of working with religious groups is by looking at their values, especially with Christian groups. By looking at their Christian values we can address SRHR through the values of justice, compassion and love. There is also a way we can engage religious groups as there is a big gap between the rhetoric of the mainstream conservative groups and the realities within which the church operates and provides services so there is an element of compassion that can be used. Instead of profiling all faith communities as conservative and difficult to work with, we might want to think about engaging with them by having dialogues. Of course there are those that are inflexible and won’t change because it is within their hierarchal structures and traditional beliefs, but even within that there are common areas of engaging around women and children’s health. So as women’s rights activist and feminists we really need to start the dialogue.

As World YWCA and ARROW are funded through NORAD to have these dialogues, we also need to engage to make sure that they happen. The ultra-conservative groups may not want to discuss. But they are not against education. On the whole religious groups do not object to education or health, universal health or gender equality because it is in the fundamental basis of all religions. Every religion believes that everyone is created equal in the image of God. But it is in the traditions and norms that there is a difference, and therefore a backlash around the whole sexual rights debate and also in terms of women’s agency. So in some religions there is the whole promotion of men as the decision-maker and that women should not have agency. That is a restrictive view of religious texts.

We will be working with a circle of feminist theologians who will be coming from a theological perspective and collaborate with ARROW and working with sisters of Islam who are going to be looking from the Islamic side while we look at the Christian side. At the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) the religion leaders told us that they do not have the skills, whereas UN reports tells us these groups are powerful and well-resourced so there are mechanisms for having dialogue.

Religion for many women is the point of contact; it is the faith based organisations that provide the social support, education, health and social protection. So we need to look at what they provide at the community level. We need to go to them with a positive approach. It is not that everyone who is religious is wrong, for us as the World YWCA we are in both worlds because of our work on rights and advocacy, but we are also comfortable in the faith-based aspect because that is where our members are.

Due to the support that faith-based organisations provide they have a lot more influence in communities. It is also down to member states signing up to declarations and not implementing and not being held accountable as duty bearers. There is an accountability failure and that gap is met by faith based organisations.

Let’s not be naïve, there are groups at the end of the spectrum who want to control women’s agency and there is a backlash. But what we’re saying is why we can’t recreate 1994 at the ICPD conference, there were much more conservative views then, but we were able to have dialogues.

A standalone gender equality goal must include SRHR. Gender has to be a priority over other categories race, disability etc because no matter what you are always worse off as a women. It is a gender and human rights issue.

CEDAW through a Finnish young woman’s eyes

By Katri Jussila, YWCA of Finland. Katri recently attended the 57th CEDAW Convention, Geneva, Switzerland below she shares her reflections. 

The YWCA of Finland’s board afforded me the wonderful opportunity to observe the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW between the 17th – 20th February, 2014 in Geneva.

It was a week of learning experiences for me and it was also a dream come true. I had a dream that one day I would get an opportunity to see the UN’s activities in practise. However, I did not know that the day will come so soon. Some might call it lucky but I prefer to use the word Guidance. I was so excited about the week that I prepared by reading the Finnish government report and the non-governmental organizations, NGOs, shadow reports, but I was still excited by what awaited me.Image

On 17th February, the first session, I attended was the session where NGOs of the reporting country gave their opinion of their country’s greatest barrier to women’s human rights. On Wednesday, the day before the Finnish government was due to meet with the CEDAW committee; there was a lunch briefing with the NGO representatives and members of the CEDAW committee. It was a very interesting conversation as the CEDAW experts got the opportunity to ask questions to the NGOs on questions they had relating to both the reports from the governments and the shadow reports. The NGO representatives also had the opportunity to share any additional information with the experts. What was even more amazing to me was that out of the 23 member expert committee, there was only one man and he was, Finnish – Mr. Niklas Bruun.

On the 20th February, when the Finnish delegation met with the CEDAW experts, my expectations were really high and the day proved to be very interesting. It was amazing to know that many people class Finland as one of the happiest countries in the world, but yet still there are so many human rights issues we still face, especially against women.

In my small country there are many cases of violence against women and I agreed with the experts when they stated that the Finnish government does not recognise this as a big enough problem. They found it to be a trend to use language which neutralises the topic. Violence against women and has been replaced by the use of terms such as violence in a close relationship.

There was also a lot of mention of women in minority groups being discriminated against, for example the immigrants’ women and women with disabilities, as there is no data available on these groups of women. Women also continue to earn less than men for doing the same work.

The Committee also noted that Finland over the years has been a great example to other countries on gender equality, for example women gained the right to vote in 1906, and many high positions have been and are held by women such as Presidents, prime ministers and ministers of finance. But still there are a number of cases about women´s human rights that have remained unchanged for a long time.

I anxiously await the Committee’s recommendations to our country and how these recommendations will be put into practice before the next CEDAW report four years from now.

There were also many nice things I enjoyed about my trip to Geneva; I had the opportunity to get to know the work of the World Office and I had the opportunity to meet with some great people: Marie -Claude, Sharon, Khalea and Lindsay. I want to say thank you all and to all others who I had the chance to meet!


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