Celebrating UN Women: The Way Forward

By Alisa Roadcup

Today is my final day at UN Women and it's hard to believe my experience here is coming to an end. Another member of Amnesty International's Women's Human Rights Coordination Group (WHRCG), Lyric Thompson, will be arriving tonight also representing Women for Women International.

All of the sessions and parallel events have been extremely informative and useful. Many of the stories of violence against women I’ve heard are country and region specific, yet a recurring theme persists: violence against women affects everyone and when a woman is harmed through rape and violence, the entire community suffers.

On Saturday I attended “Celebrating UN Women: The Way Forward” held at the New School and sponsored by the Women’s Learning Partnership. The day featured an impressive lineup of three expert panels and a keynote address from Michelle Bachelet, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women.

A few hundred women were gathered in the auditorium of the New School, yet somehow the space felt closer and more intimate than any other session I'd attended. Mahnaz Afkhami, Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership delivered the welcome and introduced Madame Bachelet.

Madame Bachelet addressed the hopes and challenges for UN Women, posing questions to the audience and taking Q&A at the end. How can a stronger link be made between UN Women and NGO’s? What channels can we create for women’s groups and networks in guiding UN Women’s strategic direction? Ms. Bachelet cited the Oxfam report released a day before the official launch of UN Women, The Blueprint for UN Women, which outlines views of the role UN Women should play in women’s human rights, gender equality and social justice.  The survey findings call for UN Women to deliver on its promise and work with governments and civil society to ensure accountability for delivering rights equality and development for women. The report also states, “UN Women needs to stand out from the traditional ways of operating to have impact on the ground by leaving the UN’s comfort zone of doing business as usual.” I have heard this sentiment expressed many times over the course of this past week. Women are calling for a new paradigm. 

The panel of speakers represented the countries of Nigeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Afghanistan and Lebanon. The presenters were seated next to Ms. Bachelet on the stage and responded to Bachelet’s address with their individual perspectives on “Our Vision for UN Women: Views from the Field.” This format provided a face-to-face opportunity for these distinguished panelists to voice their concerns openly and to ask M. Bachelet their pressing questions and concerns.

Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, Executive Director of the Afghan Institute of Learning spoke to the findings in the Oxfam survey that the UN, up to this point, has “largely failed women in the developing world. Seventy per cent of people living in poverty are women, 60% of people living with HIV in sub-Sahara Africa are women and girls, and violence against women continues to be at alarming levels.” In a humble and quiet voice, Dr. Yacoobi stated, “Afghan women need to have a peaceful and secure life. Afghan women need security.”

Mallika Dutt, President and CEO of Breakthrough then spoke, “My dreams and hopes from UN Women are for women to transform the shape and form of the political table. We need you (UN Women) to be a tipping point, a turning point, not just for all the women of the world, but for all humanity.”

Sindi Medar-Gould, Executive Director of BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights stated, “The women of Africa join voices with women from around the world in congratulating UN Women on the coming in to being of this entity that we fought for with our sweat, our tears and in some instances, our blood. We look to your leadership to help bring to meaning the true meaning of gender mainstreaming. We are looking to you and to this entity to bring in feminist re-interpretations of what is meant by these resolutions and conventions. Let’s push the envelope forward. We are ready to stand with you shoulder to shoulder to make things happen on our continent.”

Madam Bachelet responded collectively to the panelists saying, “I am not a magician, but I will work as hard as possible to fulfill your dreams and the needs of women and girls of the world. It was enriching to hear your needs. The challenges you have named are the challenges that I understand and I know they are my challenges. I can be useful but I know these challenges are very complicated and very complex. How do we pass from rhetoric to action? How do we transform politics? I believe in commitments, not promises. Because women’s rights are human rights, we need to think as decision makers to build a strong economic, social and political case on why empowerment of women is important in these three realms. Parliamentarians need to know what is in the balance, cost, and benefit. We need to build a strong case. Women’s rights as human rights have not been the key to opening doors. We need new arguments. We need to build a case. We need effective strategies. You have in UN women an open, transparent and upfront dialogue. Together, we can work harder and stronger to improve the lives of women and girls.”

If you had one question for Madame Bachelet, what would it be?