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CSW64 Beijing +25, Covid-19 and the Soroptimist Sisters

By Candace Thomas

The Commission on the Status of Woman (CSW) is a functional intergovernmental body that was established by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 1946. It was created to promote the enhancement of universal gender equality and the empowerment of Woman and Girls worldwide. CSW is also responsible for documenting the global experiences of Women and Girls, bringing under-represented issues to the forefront: such as state violence against indigenous women; the stratification of trans people as a human rights abuse; recognising rape as a weapon of war; the role of woman in humanitarian action – an eclectic, ongoing list of topics relating to the plight of Women and Girls.

In 1995 a designated World Conference for Woman met in Beijing and was successful in creating a monumental blueprint (the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action) for gender equality, that was adopted in various forms by international governments. The commission continues to meet for an annual two-weekly session at the UN headquarters in New York; to review the progress of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and expand upon its content in conjunction with contemporary issues. Each year, a negotiation for Agreed Conclusions is reached prior to the beginning of the commission, which is then redrafted throughout the two weeks long commission. It is vigorously debated upon and ultimately consented to by representatives of the UN member states. Most importantly it is the job of UN entities and civil society to make (through speeches, NGO seminars, parallel events, demonstrations and protests) state representatives aware of what is going on at a grassroots level – what should be included in the final draft of the Agreed Conclusions. I felt ecstatic at the prospect of standing with 10,000 women who had travelled to New York from all around the world – seeking the same personal yet uniquely applicable goal.

It was therefore incredibly disappointing when I found out that CSW64 Beijing +25 might be cancelled, due to a new and rapidly spreading virus, that in late February 2020 seemed remote and unaffecting. Others and I waited to hear if the conference would be adapted to include social distancing, would it be postponed, or cancelled? We received daily updates suggesting it may still go ahead with only a small number of local New York delegates in attendance. If so, there would be no civil society voice; no echo of the Woman and Girls most affected by the continued affliction of structural inequality. How could we allow the vulnerable and voiceless to go unheard, whilst an Agreed Conclusion was being written in their name? This question is particularly relevant when we consider the increasingly right-wing political position held by the majority of permanent member states.

I began to consider my options and contacted my travel agent, insurers, doctors, UNAUK, UNHS, the Soroptimists and NGONY – there was no official travel ban and everyone suggested I still go. If I did go there was still the opportunity of attending meetings with the heads of Soroptimist International (SI), to tour the UN Building (the Soroptimists would be meeting Secretary-General António Guterres), to meet with local NGOs and attend a debriefing about the conclusion of the political declaration at the UK Mission for UN’s Office. I ultimately decided to join the remaining attendees; to learn from them, raise awareness on my return and do my part to represent the common voice.

It was not until I entered terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport that I began to reflect on the days ahead. There was a tense atmosphere, generated by an uneasy calm; no rushing from terminal to gate or queues of people, cramped and encroaching on each-others space. Instead the surreal reality of the virus hit home and I had to remind myself of the good I was doing – it’s for a good reason, I am only risking myself, I am doing something for the greater good. I woke each day in the city that never sleeps to eerily vacant streets; the media increasing day by day in intensity as the city began to slowly close into lockdown. I began to question the legitimacy of my trip, but felt I needed to make the most of my time before returning to the UK.

I began by meeting the Soroptimists for a boat trip to Brooklyn – using locations across the city to discuss sorority, equality and the role the UN plays. I learned that SI is a global network of female volunteers (72,000 club members in 121 countries) advocating for human rights and gender equality. They have a deep focus on grassroots projects, aiming to assist women and girls in reaching their individual and collective potential. We sat together, a group of women from different national, generational and cultural backgrounds with shared passion for CSW and the UN’s SDGs.

Many had attended the commission in previous years, and spoke about the importance of NGO involvement, that it was essential for providing a “push back to the push pack” from anti-feminist member states. They spoke about how the global grassroots women’s movement had been set back in recent years and how this had been felt at CSW63 (many accredited attendees were denied visa entry due to working in reproductive health services) and how upsetting it was not to have attendees from China, Iran or Yemen in 2020. We patiently (with great frustration) awaited on the outcome of the Political declaration on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women.

The following day, the pressure of an imminent global lockdown on our shoulders, we discovered that the Soroptimist sister’s fears had been correct. A short draft of the Political declaration (all parallel drafts and amendments had been effectively ignored) had been accepted without debate; excluding some of the most important issues: no mention of reproductive and sexual health rights (a win for Trump ahead of the 2020 presidential election), no mention of how rape should be recognised as a war crime (a massive disappointment given the ongoing trial seeking justice for the capture, rape and murder of Yazidi Woman in Iraq) and a Washington-pushed emphasis on “pro-family” stances (backed up by statements from the Holy See and the Vatican City describing the woman’s role as “wife, mother and care-giver”) impinging on LGBTQ+ rights.

There was an observable resistance from the usual suspects, member states (US, Russia, Iran, Yemen, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Brazil and several other African countries), totally unwilling to shift the goal posts and allow the women’s rights movement to progress. In summation, the accepted draft was too simplistic, conceded to the national legislature of individual countries and focused too much on previous achievements, over future goals.

The Soroptimist sisters decided to secretly convene in the Millennium Hotel to discuss how we move forward; three federations of women, united in one room “a small group of anarchists”. We sat together in the foyer of the hotel exchanging introductions and favours (a jewelled bus key ring “we’re on this bus together”; a purple and yellow Soroptimist sash and a spoon pin, a nod to the metal spoon technique designed in partnership with a Soroptimist to help human trafficking). The meeting was informal but determined; focusing on both the work of the women present (an incredible cohort of strong woman) and the steps we need to take in order to compensate for the inadequacy of this new blueprint for gender equality. Despite describing themselves as “anarchists” (in good humour) the woman expressed a strong desire to work with the UN; advocating for increased civil society involvement in the UN’s proceedings. They assured me (a burgeoning sceptic) that the UN may not be an ideal system, but it is the only organisation capable of bringing 195 countries together – to share ideas, and “who knows what domino effect it could transpire?”.

The group very much felt that a single idea, “a spark” could ignite a tangible change, spanning the globe. Together, we delved into deep discussions and critiques about feminism, the future of SI and fractures in the global movement. I sat transfixed (amazed by the unapologetic – grit of these women). I listened to bold statements that my fellow students, staunch feminist would not openly say: “sometimes feminists get too precious about…words”; the patriarchy thinks “Oh it’s just the little girls making squeaky noises. We as Soroptimists, we have to be very smart at the grassroots level”; “We can be the change that we seek - we have that power and the fact that it was cancelled makes us more powerful”. It was therefore decided collectively, that the best way forward was to campaign locally, to contact each of our local representatives, but do so using a unified voice – SI will go on to generate a translatable statement that could be used internationally.

On my third morning in New York I woke to the realisation that I needed to return home as soon as possible. I walked through the streets on my way to the UK Mission for UN and felt a tangle of guilt in my stomach. I noticed that the streets were almost entirely empty apart from people who did not have the financial means to start self-isolating. The variables that allowed me determined that my being there was for the greater good had shifted. What if I had unknowingly brought and helped spread the virus throughout the city. I rebooked my flight for the following morning and focused on the day ahead. I had been invited to join a group of teenage girls from two different schools in southern England. They too had decided to go to New York and a schedule was designed by Fedcap to ensure they still had a fulfilling experience.

The UK National Alliance of Women’s Organisations arranged a series of seminars, in which the girls could both listen to representatives from local female centric NGOs and give presentations on various topics: women in conflict, women in peacebuilding, economic empowerment for women in developing countries; also uniquely current topics (unthinkable to those in attendance at Beijing in 1995) like cyber bullying, social media as a feminist platform, gender dysformity – one 16 year old even asked if we should abandon gender all together (brave in a room full of feminists). These Girls were brave and articulate, they freely shared their opinions and challenged the information they were given by their elders.

A standout moment was when a speaker at the UK Mission for UN described the political declaration as “decent…didn’t drop the bar but did not advance much…will all depend on the UK in a post-Brexit….”, immediately a Girls hand shot up: “But what are the barriers we will face, particularly with the leadership of an openly sexist prime minister?”. I will not lie my heart skipped a beat with pride. If this is an indicator of the next generation, “Generation Equality” we are in safe hands – the millennials deserve more credit. It would have been an incredibly rewarding experience to spend more time with the Girls, but it was time to go home.

It took me a while to write this article. As the weeks have gone on, the world in lockdown, daily updates on new Covid-19 cases and increasing death counts, images of mass graves in New York – I felt ashamed of my recklessness. In hindsight I would not have gone. I did not have Covid-19, but I could have and would have been responsible for spreading the virus to hundreds of vulnerable people – forced to work in precarious roles without fair employment or access to health care. My intention was to attend CSW64 +Beijing as member of civil society (a representative of UNAUK and UNHS), to hold member states to account and advance gender equality, empowering Woman and Girls worldwide. In reality I was endangering Women and Girls; who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Woman make up 70% of the global care work force (domestic work, education, health care, social care, social work etc) and are therefore at a greater risk of contracting Covid-19. The greatest good at this moment, the most beneficial step I can take for Woman and Girls, is to stay home.

I had a truly unique experience and met so many strong, passionate Women and Girls. However, this experience has taught me an important lesson: social justice should rarely come at the expense of community care; there is a time stand up for Women and a time stay home for Women.

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