“Human rights” can be a surprisingly touchy subject at the United Nations. I’ve discovered in my first two days here that many woman activists, particularly from the Global South, find promoting human rights can actually be counter-productive in their advocacy work, since it’s viewed as a Western imposition and culturally insensitive system of measurement.
But if “human rights” aren’t our standard for measuring improvement and equality in the lives of women and girls around the globe, then what is? The answer seems to be a million small steps and culturally appropriate measurements, rather than the so-called universal standard many activists – myself included – frequently endorse.
Over the weekend an extensive orientation covered the material that will be required for informed participation in this year’s CSW events – namely, understanding current barriers to women and girls' participation in science and technology and what is necessary for the successful transition from education into the labor market. The reasons for unequal entry and retention in so-called "STEM" careers ("Science, Technology, Engineering and Math") are complex and are drastically affected by region and culture. Even gender stereotypes about appropriate roles for men and women - one of the most pervasive barriers - changes shape according to context (i.e., the "glamorization of dumbness" as one woman put it, is certainly not universal but a very real hindrance in certain communities).
The most exciting part of the day for many was the opportunity to hear Michelle Bachelet, the head of UN Women, give the keynote address. The former president of Chile and the first woman head of state there, she was elected with overwhelming popular support and remains a pivotal figure, a role model for millions of women worldwide. Her keynote address was very targeted, mentioning specific roles and duties of UN Women and the ways in which the initiatives will be enacted - including identifying best practices for women's empowerment, promoting coherence and synergy with CSOs, and collecting data that has been disaggregated to reflect gender.
This morning marked the official opening of the CSW 2011 meetings. The number of NGO delegates is limited due to renovations of the U.N. facility, so not everyone can attend all the sessions. This is not as disappointing as it may sound - for many of the women here, the official meetings are actually the least dynamic part of the CSW. There are approximately 250 parallel events happening simultaneously that we can choose to attend according to our specific interests. These include caucuses, workshops, panels, and seminars and are hosted by the U.N. Member states or other CSOs, and most occur in buildings in the vicinity of the U.N. The delegates from WILPF have taken a divide-and-conquer approach - each of us attending different events, taking notes, and then reporting back during an evening debriefing session. Hopefully the range of issues under consideration this week will be accurately reflected in these blog posts - it's a daunting, yet exciting, task!
For those interested in the official meetings, webcasts can be found at the following link: http://www.unmultimedia.org/tv/webcast/index.html
Rebecca Norlander, a PhD student in Saybrook University’s Social Transformation program, is a delegate to the UN Commission on the Status of Women this week. She’s blogging about her experiences.