The UN Commission on the Status of Women is a chance to amplify gender equality


By Anna Leach

Now underway in New York, the Commission on the Status of Women [schedulevideos, and symbol to the left] is an annual global event where UN-types, NGOs and civil society groups gather to talk about how much progress has been made on gender equality. The answer is always: not enough.

In his opening speech last week secretary-general Antonio Guterres said that this is a “pivotal moment for the rights of women and girls … Women and girls are calling out abusive behaviour and discriminatory attitudes. And let’s be clear the central question we face is a question of power. Power is normally never given, power normally needs to be taken.”

The #MeToo raising of voices calling out disrespectful behaviour all around the world is already changing how people behave in workplaces and universities. But what about the dark suffering that lurks behind those privileged enough to use a hashtag? Millions of women and girls all over the the world are subjected to horrific experiences - sex trafficking, child marriage, female genital mutilation, for example.

The vastness and the complexity of the issues behind these harmful practices can be overwhelming and disempowering. It is mostly women who suffer but that does not mean all men are guilty. Many women are complicit in these practices and many men actively prevent them from happening. How can the energy of the #MeToo campaign and other hashtags be harnessed in a way that brings change to those who are suffering the most?

One lens to think about these issues is the I-We-World realms of inquiry that The Alternative UK sets out. So, for example, a “world” response would be to donate to a cause we feel passionate about; a “we” response would be to connect to people affected by these issues in your local area or online; and an “I” response would be to and notice when the voice in our heads dismisses certain people as having less value than ourselves (part of the worldview that leads to sex trafficking and exploitation).

The resurgence of awareness of the discrimination experienced by women is an opportunity for more connection across the globe. Now a light has been shone on the abuse that patriarchy fosters in America, there is an opportunity for women around the world to come together to share their experiences. Women in America, Turkey and India are recognising what they have in common. Sisterhood is powerful. And you don’t have to be a woman to have sisters - men can also join this movement.

The sisterhood concept was put into tangible use by Zainab Salbi who founded Women for Women International to help women affected by conflict by matching them with a “sister” who will sponsor their education. In recent Daily Alternative editorial, Indra Adnan explored the concept of the Feminine and how developing the feminine in the public space can help politics to become more human.

Soon after the election of Donald Trump, I interviewed Salbi and she told me that she believes that bringing about real change depends on embracing both the feminine and the masculine parts of ourselves.

“We have all been living in a masculine world,” she said. “I honestly say screw that at the moment. I’m not going to deny any aspect of me just so I can succeed, or protect myself, in a man’s world.” She also said that it is time to stop being polite: “A lot of the time women are polite when they’re addressing the issues, even to their boss when they make sexist remarks. I feel like this it not the time to be polite. This is the time to call it.” (This was before the hashtags started to call it.)

Salbi’s Two Peas video series celebrates of the global sisterhood of women who are working to reach the most marginalised in our world. Watching those is a good step in educating ourselves so that next year’s Commission on the Status of Women can celebrate more progress than usual.

Anna Leach (@avleachy) writes for The Guardian on global development issues.