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'I Don't Know Why We Come': Inside the UN's Commission on the Status of Women

After two weeks of often disappointing and contentious sessions in New York, concerned women from all over the world now return home to continue their work.
Photo via UN Women

Midtown New York for the past two weeks has been a colorful place, as thousands of concerned women from all over the world have been attending the annual session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The older attendees came with hopes of recreating the "fire" — as one activist put it — that pulsed through them in Beijing 20 years ago, when the Beijing Platform for Action on women's issues was created. The younger ones came with hopes of joining an inter-generational revolution.


But two decades after Beijing, activists from the developing world came under fire — they did not feel it burning within.

The old guard has been more easily coaxed into events that have consisted of little but statement and spectacle. The week began with a march for women's rights led by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Under Ban's dangerously weak regime, women have been increasingly vulnerable to the crimes of war and offered little but meager handouts in its aftermath. Where this man leads, no woman should follow.

The NGO Committee on the Status of Women Award was given this year to Indian activist Ruchira Gupta, whose life's work has been to abolish all forms of commercial and non-commercial subjugation of women through sex. But UN Women — a body dedicated to issues concerning women since 2010 — has advocated instead for the de-criminalization of the sex industry, a move intended to increase rights and services for sex workers. Those in favor of abolishment counter that as UN Women's policy is implemented, it often ends up further empowering already powerful pimps.

In an attempt to appease both sides, the NGO organizers sent a frantic email to Gupta at 2:30am asking her not to mention prostitution or to criticize UN Women. She ignored the requests in her initial acceptance speech at the Apollo Theater, calling for the retraction of UN Women's stance on sex work and for the organization to pay greater attention to the plight of the most marginalized. As she officially accepted her award the next day, many attendees were still outside in the halls, and loud chatter in food lines drowned her out. It felt less like typical UN poor planning and more like purposeful chaos created in retaliation for her words.


At the reception, an older Liberian woman took a seat on one of the few scattered chairs and sighed. "I will not come to these things again," she told me. "I don't know why we come."

An activist for Dalit women in India, who planned to skip panels in favor of heading back to her hotel, commented on the vibe of the week. "It seems… weird," she said. "Overwhelming, and very disconnected." Her government told her to enjoy the shopping in New York — and to not speak about India's caste problem. She, too, ignored the directive, but was unsure if anyone was truly listening.

Far removed from years of cynicism and forced assimilation, the younger women who came to New York seeking change immediately sensed the discomfort of women from the developing world. They balked at the police officers from Nordic countries who proudly declared that sexual abuse by the state doesn't happen in their countries. They shifted in their seats as a white psychiatrist explained to a room of global women that achieving diversity in gender work is often "dark and messy."

The new generation of activists from the developing world does not understand the absence of frank conversations about race, class, and sexuality. The feminist infighting at the UN is disheartening, the bureaucracy overwhelming.

"The more I listen to NGOs speak about female empowerment, the more disempowered I feel," a young activist from Mexico named Ana told me.


There were, however, moments when Ana said she felt she was learning, and that there was political camaraderie between speakers and audience. Panelists set to discuss the connective thread of state violence against women would not start their session until a massive banner hanging behind them was removed. That banner proclaimed "Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan Supports Women." Pictured below him were the portraits of the women in his cabinet. Not pictured were the hundreds of girls he failed to bring back.

A conversation that covered issues ranging from policing black girls in America, to Tamil ex-combatants in Sri Lanka, to militarized schools in the US South, to Dalit oppression in India drew out some of the inter-generational dissent that the UN bureaucracy had hoped to squash. A young Mexican woman who had heard about UN Women's push to support education and training for girls through local governments asked a question in a shaky voice: "When I go to school, I fear that I will be raped, and that my own government will be involved. What do you do if the state is the one who commits the crime?"

Everyone at the UN this week seemingly watched India's Daughter, the documentary on gang rape India banned. In it, a defense lawyer describes women as delicate flowers, and men as protective thorns. But it is the young women here in New York who will return home to contentious societies and difficult lives — along with their older allies — who are poised to be political thorns in the side of their own governments, and of the UN.

Nimmi Gowrinathan is a visiting professor at the Colin Powell School at City College New York. Follow her on Twitter: @nimmideviarchy

Photo via Flickr