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Seeking Reproductive Justice: Roadblocks to Women's Economic Empowerment Around the World
Seeking Reproductive Justice: Roadblocks to Women's Economic Empowerment Around the World

By Emma Langsner

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is a two week long conference where events are hosted in and around the United Nations Headquarters by member states, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and civil society. During the conference, which takes place every March in New York City, more than 6,000 advocates, allies, and policy makers from all over the world come together to share ideas, discuss challenges, and learn about each other’s advocacy efforts. The theme of the conference changes each year as a way to focus the conversations on different advocacy areas pertaining to women. This year’s theme was Economic Empowerment of Women in the Changing World of Work.”

Logo for the 61st UN Commission on the Status of Women in March 2017

Working with the chosen theme and taking into account the program areas of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO), we decided to put forth a proposal for a panel that would focus on the intersection of reproductive justice and economic empowerment. Having this broad topic was exciting as it allowed for us to include speakers with a variety of different expertise. As invites were sent out to panelists we looked forward to seeing how the end result would come together.

Monday, March 13 was the big day and we were so excited to learn from our panelists and audience, and witness the discussion that would occur. With a room packed full of people (to the point where we had to turn late comers away) the event began.

The conversation began with the panelists explaining what the intersection of reproductive justice and economic empowerment looks like in their experience. Audience members were given insight to some of the struggles women and girls in other parts of the world go through, such as child marriage, female genital mutilation, and the consequences of being pregnant outside of marriage. The audience was also given insight to issues that occur in the United States and often go unrecognized. These included the prominence of abstinence-only sex education courses, the neglected experiences of women of color, the unheard voices of women with disabilities, and the overall devaluing of women’s role in society and the over-policing of their bodies.

The most powerful illustrations of the intersection came from Meera Shah who spoke on South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. In South Asia, daughters are seen as commodities and are often forced into child marriages where they are pressured to become pregnant. This common practice leads women and girls to become economically dependent and incapable of leaving their husbands. In Sub-Saharan Africa, girls are forced to take pregnancy tests at school and if the result is positive, the girl is expelled regardless of the circumstances, including rape. Public schools will then reject girls who have an abortion, or they are unwilling to offer young mothers education. The only option for education is private schools that are often unaffordable. Girls that are denied education are at much greater risk of child marriage and gender-based violence. 

After each panelist spoke, the floor was opened to questions from the audience, where we were fortunate enough to hear from women from many different backgrounds. Conversations addressed religious law regarding pregnancy and how double standards in Sudan have disempowered women and created international stigma. In Sudan single pregnant women are punished for having sex outside of marriage, yet in these cases there is no punishment for the man because there is no clear evidence that he had sex.

One of the most important questions asked was regarding sex education and how omitting information regarding LBGTQ+ relationships, consent, and pleasure does an injustice to students. Creating a dialogue that is awkward and full of shame makes discussing sex a taboo in our society and until shame is unlearned, we are enforcing this idea that women shouldn’t be comfortable with themselves. While this discussion was so important because of its content, it is equally important to recognize the audience member who posed the question to initiate it, a teenage girl who was visiting New York City with her Girl Scout troop. Not an “expert” or someone who has done extensive research on the topic, but just an insightful curious mind that wants to help make society more accepting and safe for others.

CSW is all about empowering women and hoping that our efforts today create a better, more accepting world in the future. The last exchange our panelists and audience had captured this hope in such a beautiful way. The final question came from a young mother who wanted to discuss stigma around motherhood and how it doesn’t seem as though mothers are appreciated, even within mainstream feminism. She asked this question while cradling her newborn daughter. Everyone in the room, unfortunately, knew what she was talking about. Our society does not appreciate the work mothers do, as there is no way to put a monetary value on it. Gender discrimination has long been present in capitalist societies and rather than working towards changing the conversation we keep making it so mothers feel bad for things like maternity leave.

It was a privilege for me to work with these panelists and to help bring attention to these critical issues. I’ll end this post the same way Andrea Barrica ended the panel, “Keep seeking pleasure, keep thriving, not just surviving!”

Panelists at the UU-UNO's 2017 CSW panel

Panelists left to right: Aisha Haghamed, Meera Shah, Latishia AV James, Andrea Laiz Barrica, and moderator Dr. Holly K. Shaw.

Our wonderful panelists included:

Meera Shah, the Global Advocacy Adviser at the Center for Reproductive Rights. Her role includes planning and executing advocacy strategies with UN bodes and mechanisms here in New York City. A large portion of her efforts have revolved around developing the global program’s cress-regional and thematic work, with a large focus on conflict and crisis.

Latishia AV James, the Head of Healing and Community at the O.school. In this role she consults with organizations to design and implement programs that are trauma-informed, empathy driven, and research based at the intersections of race, sexuality, reproduction and religion. She also has a background in working in sexual and reproductive health with refugees and youth.

Aisha Haghamed, a Gender and Human Rights Consultant with the Algassim Organization for Humanitarian Aid and Development in Sudan. She is a lawyer and used to serve as a judge. Her previous work also includes serving as a Gender Consultant with the United Nations and African Union Hybrid Mission to Darfur (UNAMID).

Andrea Laiz Barrica, the Founder/CEO of O.school. Currently she is focusing on her new venture O.school which is an online shame-free platform for pleasure education, especially for women and gender-diverse people, for people to unlearn shame, process trauma and own their desire. Her previous work has included co-founding YC-backed accounting technology startup, inDinero.com and serving as a venture partner and entrepreneur-in-residence at 500 Startups, where she advised technology startup founders.

Dr. Holly K Shaw, a representative of the Nightingale Initiative for Global Health (NIGH) and the International Council of Nurses. She is an expert in health and healing with a focus on crisis, trauma and bereavement. Currently she serves in several elected NGO positions including Vice Chair for the NGO Committee on Mental Health, Co-Convenor for the Working Group on Refugee and Immigrant Mental Health and is the former director on the UN NGO DPI Executive Committee


Emma Langsner is a Program Intern at the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office focusing on the Women's Rights Program and the Climate Justice Program. Emma is also a Masters student at Fordham School of Social Work.

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