Sowing Seeds of Change at the United Nations
The speech text below was presented as an introduction to a panel event sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office and the NGO Committee on Human Rights as part of the 62nd United Nations Commission on the Status of Women NGO forum. The event, entitled "Advancing Gender Equality through Community Based Organizing and Global Advocacy", tied together the work of community-based organizations with international treaties. In her introduction, JoAnne McClure talks about this topic, and more importantly, about the United Nations in general and why it merits our full support and engagement.
Before I go into the framework and elaborate on the concept of this panel let me give a little background on myself. I studied at the University of Nevada, Reno earning my Bachelor in Social Work while working in Carson City as a case manager for the State of Nevada at the Division of Welfare and Supportive Services. These offices provide services such as food stamps, Medicaid, and cash assistance (TANF). I worked with eligible clients, mostly single mothers, that had a social work-related barrier to their employment, such as domestic violence, mental health, an open child protective services case, disabilities, homelessness, teen pregnancy, and substance abuse related issues. We would collaboratively develop a case plan that provided next steps in addressing their specific barriers before requiring employment for them to receive state benefits. The social work department in our office covered all rural areas for the state, mind you, Nevada geographically is twice the size of the state of New York, with less than 1/6th the population. This meant that we worked mostly over the phone with many of our clients and during this time I began to see, hear, and realize how limited the resources are to those who are in need of services related to mental health, domestic violence, homelessness and how scarce those limited resources are in rural communities. I came to New York to pursue my Master in Social Work at Columbia University with an emphasis on social policy. I want to cultivate a change for those in communities like mine, where I saw systematic issues working against those trying to utilize social safety net programs to better their circumstances.
I began my internship at the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office with a naïve sense of what exactly happens within the United Nations. Of course, I had heard of the UN, knew its history relating to World War II, knew it worked on issues relating to human rights and that it creates international policies and treaties, but I couldn’t answer the question of what the UN actually does. I got my pass, began attending meetings relating to women’s rights, and was soon flooded with information from amazing panels filled with remarkable people that have vast experiences from all over the world. I was overwhelmed with everything the UN had to offer for the first few months, but eventually the honeymoon phase ended, and I was back to the question of what the UN actually does. Even after attending meetings and the various events, I didn’t have a solid short answer to that simple question. I realized that as I was trying to find the answer I was searching for something clearly defined that had tangible outcomes, as if it was a factory, and I was searching for its product. While the UN does have various ways of taking action such as UN peacekeeping, publishing reports, and special rapporteurs to name a few, I wasn’t working in those areas within the UN. I was being steeped in the areas that focus on the development of friendly relations amongst nations, those that promote social progress, better living standards and human rights. What I have learned from my time here at the UN and within my studies of Social Policy is that you may never see how far reaching the seeds of change are that you sow. Cultivating lasting change through peace takes time and isn’t always seen through its various steps and stages. Those in the realm of social policy are working for a change and can be removed from the actual scenarios that they are addressing, but that doesn’t make their work any less dire or important than those providing direct services.
The theme that we are amplifying with this discussion today is that the international human rights framework is beneficial when local communities remain active and engaged in its creation and maintenance. The voices of those actively serving at the community level and the populations being served themselves must partake in every stage of the policy making and upkeep in order to have viable regulations that have a chance at being implemented properly. It is important that local community organizations access the human rights frameworks and tools to promote their own advocacy, as they rely upon each other.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will only be achievable if the initial barriers to equality of women, whom make up half the population, are undertaken. There are specific goals, such as goal 5 gender equality and goal 10 reduced inequality, that address women directly but women’s equality is the key to success amongst all the other goals. The SDG’s attempt to put forth structured markers and pathways for member states and civil society to take in addressing complex issues, but they aren’t meant to be taken on separately as they are interwoven. These complex goals and global problems are intertwined and best looked as building and fueling off each other, as nothing happens in a vacuum. The key to achieving any and all of the Development Goals and the overall commitment to “Leave no one Behind” is to incorporate gender equality at the core of every goal. This is important for not only women and girls but for men and boys alike, as discrimination and oppression affect everyone who comes in contact with it.
A tangible way for community level organizations to become involved with international policies is through the CEDAW Committee and UN special rapporteurs. CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, is an international treaty adopted in 1979. As of 2015, 189 countries have ratified or acceded to the treaty, leaving only two governments that have signed but not ratified, one being the US, and five others that have not signed on to CEDAW, globally. UN Special Rapporteurs are independent experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor, report on, and provide advice on human rights situations in specific countries and worldwide.
Both of these place considerable value on hearing from women themselves about the situations in their countries when developing their reports. So when we speak about the importance of utilizing international treaties and policies at a local level we don’t mean that women and girls locally should be spoken to about them, but instead should engage with them. The push forward for human rights and more specifically women’s rights must involve strong international treaties and strong relationships between international and grass roots organizations. Our various governments or member states need to feel the pressure to cultivate change from within our communities and within international organizations to accelerate the support for sustainable change with regards to gender equality.
This year’s theme of rural women is better defined as women and girls in rural areas. This targeted distinction alleviates the notion that it’s rural women vs suburban or urban women, and places strength where it lies, within the unity of women and girls in addressing the systems that oppress us. What we are suggesting may sound like a big ask of community level organizations, as they are at the front lines providing services, and should also access international paradigms to advance their advocacy, but who knows better of what the true needs and barriers are within the community. I believe that it is the responsibility of those in policy making positions to seek out the involvement of local organizations addressing the needs of the community they are attempting to influence, but this is not always practiced. It is also their responsibility to make accessing these international committees and organizations easier and more realistic. But as a society it is our duty to maintain awareness and accountability that these best practices are being conducted and that we are amplifying the voices that speak truth to power.