Presbyterian Women at the UN

I am no longer a YAV, but I have decided to continue using my Boston YAV blog to share my experience of being a young adult in the church. Last week I had the amazing opportunity to be a part of the Presbyterian Church (USA) delegation to the United Nations 59th Commission on the Status of Women in New York City.

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United Nations Headquarters NYC

What is the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)?

According to UN Women‘s website, the CSW “is the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.” It is a functional commission of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), which means official UN business is taking place in the building– including speeches from the UN General-Secretary and other leaders. While all of those meetings are going on, the NGO-Forum is also meeting, so non-governmental organizations are hosting panel discussions, workshops, and other events all related to women’s empowerment. These groups include faith-based organizations, UN Women groups in various countries, topic-based focus groups, etc. This particular Commission on the Status of Women is reviewing the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which was adopted in 1995 by the 4th World Conference on Women, that affirms the fundamental human rights of women and girls. (It’s when Hilary Clinton made her famous speech that “women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.”) Even though the UN declared that women are entitled to equality in public and private spheres, leadership and decision-making roles, healthcare, and education, no country has reached gender equity. So this year’s CSW’s theme is to review that declaration and action plan from twenty years ago, measure the progress we’ve made, and plan for where we need to go.

Worship

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The Presbyterian Church is part of Ecumenical Women, an international coalition of Christian denominations and organizations. We had a full day of orientation as a group before the commission started, and we started each day with worship together. It was great to feel a part of a much-larger network of Christian women who are praying and advocating for gender justice. We came together as Presbyterians, Lutherans, Anglicans, Baptists, Salvationists, Methodists, and many others, from all over the world speaking many different languages to worship God, pray, and share our stories. Worship was early (8am every day), and even though we weren’t quite awake yet, I could always feel the Spirit as we sang together and listened to Scripture being read. One of my favorite moments during worship was we all said the Lord’s Prayer in our native language– it was a beautiful and powerful sound.

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Another was when we sang “We are Marching in the Light of God” while people waving flags from all over the world marched around the chapel.

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A group from the Presbyterian delegation worshiped together at Forest Hills Presbyterian Church.

Community

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Just as community is an important aspect of the YAV program, I found a sense of community with the other young adults in the delegation. We spent time together debriefing every night, as well as ended up spending most meals and lots of free time together. We were from all over the country- Washington state to New England, Arizona to Virginia, and plenty in-between. We shared what we learned, discussed our struggles and theological truths, and shared our joys and doubts. I am thankful God put all of us together last week.

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My roommate for the week, Steph, and I at the UN.

That sense of community, solidarity, and sisterhood was part of the entire CSW. Everyone referred to each other, new friends and old, as sisters, and it was amazing to hear women from places like Norway, Barbados, Nigeria, Malaysia, and Ireland share their stories and work together. We also discussed how this idea of global sisterhood where we all get along and everything is great is problematic and not realistic– feminism has it’s problems and exclusions. But the only way to get better is to recognize, discuss, and work through problems together.

One way we came together as a community was the International Women’s Day March through NYC on Sunday March 8th.

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Thousands of people came together to march for gender justice in solidarity and sisterhood with people from all over the world. The first International Women’s Day was a march for better pay and voting rights in 1908; we are aware of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

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Hope

Each day during the week I attended 2-4 NGO panel discussions about various topics involving gender justice. I listened to experts, activists, faith leaders, and women sharing their experiences and truth. Some of the stories were really hard to hear. I attended events about the exploitation of migrant and trafficked women; the oppression of the Palestinian people; how millions of people are displaced in Iraq with families living in refugee camps; women suffering from domestic violence in Egypt; women being raped and tortured in South Africa; gendercide in India; and how energy companies are destroying natural resources and exploiting poor communities.

I also heard stories about how labor unions are organizing around and advocating for migrant women; how European countries are fighting prostitution and human trafficking; that women are demonstrating for peace in Israel and Palestine; a woman Member of Parliament who was exiled from Iraq is now back in Parliament advocating for women’s rights; about Muslim women who are peace activists in Egypt; and women from the US, Nigeria, India and Kenya coming together to fight for environmental justice.

Several panel discussions I attended were about how faith communities need to speak out against violence against women, as well as sexual and reproductive health. When it comes to the church being silent about domestic violence, “what we permit, we promote.” Religion has been, and still is, a powerful tool to sustain violence; it is also a powerful tool to end violence if we talk about it from the pulpit and refuse to accept it in our congregations.

It was a full and moving week. I came away inspired by the work and passion of women from all over the world, as well as overwhelmed with how connected the world is, how complicated our problems are, and how ignorant and uniformed I am of their complexities. I am grateful for this opportunity to truly listen and learn. The delegations at the CSW are from all over the world, bringing with them different cultures, languages, religions, and political perspectives, and the beauty is that we are able to come together to say “women’s lives matter,” to protect women and girls, and to love each other.

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