Wednesday 12th March: Keep on agitating!

20 Mar

On Wednesday I attended a meet and greet with Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Quite a novelty meeting a woman bishop! With great warmth and welcome, she encouraged us to keep agitating to seek change in the world. During the same session, Mugisa Isingoma talked about her role as Mothers’ Union President for Congo and the need for her and other leaders to be role models to women. She also talked about her work with United Women for Peace and Social Inclusion, which supports women to become self-sufficient, particularly those who have survived rape and domestic violence. She highlighted how the women she works with do not want to keep telling their story but rather look to the future to see what they can achieve.

Afterwards, I attended an event on engaging faith communities to address sexual and gender-based violence, held by Episcopal Relief and Development and chaired by Terrie Robinson, Women’s Desk Officer with the Anglican Communion. She highlighted how people often look to the church for support and encouragement, yet how the church has often remained silent on the issue of domestic and gender-based violence. Rev Ann Marie Hunter of Safe Havens Interfaith Partnership spoke about how faith can be used as a weapon of abuse, as well as being a source of support and healing; and how faith communities need to repent and speak out against violence, as well as offering support to survivors. Other panelists spoke about the importance of faith leaders being educated about gender-based violence and becoming advocates for transformation.

At the end of the day I attended a reception hosted by Sir Mark Lyall Grant, the Ambassador and Permanent Representative, UK Mission to the UN New York. I was introduced to Maria Miller, Minister for Women and Equalities, and spoke to her about Mothers’ Union’s perspective on this year’s CSW, including the discussions Rhoda and I had had about girls missing school each month. I also chatted to Sharon Hodgson MP, Shadow Women and Equalities Minster, who told me her concerns about the sexualisation of young girls and boys, including their use of internet pornography and self-generated content such as sexting. She was aware of our Bye Buy Childhood campaign and the Bailey Review, having met with her shortly before coming out to CSW.

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UK Government presentation at UNCSW

14 Mar

UK Government presentation ot UNCSW

Lynne Featherstone MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for International Development, presents the UK Government’s statement

Tuesday 11th March: Next draft of the agreed conclusions

14 Mar

Someone was obviously working hard in the wee hours, as early Tuesday morning the revised draft (now the third version) of the agreed conclusions made its way into my email inbox. For the first time, certainly since I’ve attended CSW, the agreed conclusions are being made available freely to all. No longer do we have to rely on helpful leaks and subterfuge, which makes the process much easier (if not a little less exhilarating!).

The new draft is down to 30 or so pages, and for the first time there is no indication on which countries or groups of countries have made which amendments. An interesting piece of psychology, perhaps, to persuade NGOs to read through the amendments without prejudice based on who has written them.

Some of our amendments that made it into the compilation draft remain in this draft, although some suggestions have not been included. I beavered away making further amendments and whizzed them over to the UK negotiators and other contacts. Despite being in New York, I think I’ve had better laptop performance and internet connection in South Sudan, so this took up a fair amount of time.

Later, I found a comfy spot in a shiny new lounge in the UN building overlooking the river to do some more work and managed to ‘overhear’ other government delegates discussing their amendments to the agreed conclusions. They were in favour of a paragraph that is not popular with more progressive states and were collaborating on making it more acceptable. Referring to women as a ‘reproductive unit’ is perhaps not the most empowering language!

The UK Government also gave its statement to the CSW, presented by Lynne Featherstone MP. She highlighted the Government’s commitment to giving 0.7% Gross National Income in overseas development assistance and announced that soon all those applying for DFID funding for aid and development will need to prove that they are also taking into account gender issues in what the money will be spent on.

And the evening briefing proved a rich source of information again, this time about progress on the post-2015 development agenda. Whilst there is a lot of agreement on the very detailed High Level Panel report, it is by no means set in stone yet; so there is still the opportunity to lobby on ensuring the next set of goals truly seek to further gender equality.

Monday 10th March 2014: Opening day of CSW

14 Mar

On Monday, Rhoda and I met with the other UK NGOs. As well as seeing many familiar faces, there were a number of first timers including a large group of young people. This group meets every morning to share information, help support those who are new and plan joint lobbying.

At midday Rhoda and I joined with the Anglican Communion and Ecumenical Women for the Eucharist, presided over by Rt Rev Chilton Knudson, Assistant Bishop of New York. At the service we met up with a number of members of the Anglican Communion delegation who are also Mothers’ Union members, including Mugisa Isingoma, Provincial President for Congo, Marie Pierrette Bezara, Provincial President for the Indian Ocean, and Immaculee Nyirsansengimana, the Provincial Worker for Rwanda. It’s always such a delight to see old friends again in a different part of the world – reminds me how much of a global fellowship Mothers’ Union is.

In the evening I headed to the first of our daily briefings from the UK Government representatives at the UK Permanent Mission to the UN, where the UK negotiator gave a useful overview of the agreed conclusions so far. As usual, there are disagreements over sections on sexual and reproductive health and rights, and a notable push from some countries to change any use of ‘rights’ language to ‘empowerment’. However, many states are moving in the same direction on issues such as peace and security, child marriage and the need for good data collection that is also disaggregated by sex, age, marital status etc; and the mood of discussions so far has been positive and congenial.

A number of UK Parliamentarians are also in attendance, including Baroness Margaret Prosser, Roberta Blackman Wood MP and Sharon Hodgson MP from the Labour Party; and Baroness Fiona Hodgson and Mary Macleod MP from the Conservative Party. They have taken part in a number of inter-parliamentary events hosted by organisations such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, as well as attending side events run by NGOs.

[Apologies for the lack of photos, btw, I’m having trouble uploading them into the body of the text. I’ll treat you to a few pics as soon as I can.]

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Mothers’ Union representatives at the United Nations

11 Mar

Mothers' Union representatives

(r-l) Rhoda Luvuno Wabukale, Provincial President of Kenya; and Rachel Aston, Social Policy Officer

9th March 2014: The importance of light and love

11 Mar

On Sunday Rhoda and I attended the NGO (non-governmental organisation) introductory day. The jam-packed agenda included a number of eminent and inspiring speakers, starting with the Under Secretary General and Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka who spoke about the ‘opportunity of a lifetime’ presented by the new global development agenda. Analisa Balares, CEO of social enterprise Womensphere spoke about the need for sources of love and light to fight against the ‘black clouds of inhumanity and inequality’ hanging over us. Anita, a 16 year old from the Working Group on Girls, spoke about how her mother, who was forced into an arranged marriage, escaped her abusive husband in Ghana to start a new life with her three children in New York and worked three jobs to ensure her children could have the opportunities she didn’t. It was interesting to hear from other panelists too, about the influence their mothers and fathers had on their lives in encouraging their participation in politics, education and employment.

In what can be very dry and academic discussions, it was refreshing to hear the human stories that demonstrate the importance of gender equality and empowering women; and how values such as love and the importance of family have an inherent value and cut across political and cultural boundaries.

As Rhoda and I struggled and failed to hail a cab, and then battle the New York Subway home (if ever there was an argument for keeping ticket offices open to help hapless tourists, the Subway is it) she reflected on how she might apply the discussions of the day to our grassroots membership and their communities; which also reinforced for me of the importance of keeping people at the heart of the development agenda.

8th March 2014: International Women’s Day

8 Mar

Today, on International Women’s Day, I joined with hundreds of other women in registering to attend the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations in New York. It barely seems like yesterday since I was here last!

This year, governments will be discussing the achievements made through the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in furthering gender equality and the empowerment of women. These eight goals, originating from the Millennium Declaration in 2000, were set to be achieved by 2015; but many will not be met. However, the United Nations is well underway in setting out a new agenda that will continue the work of the MDGs in ending extreme poverty and furthering human development. Last year, a High Level Panel, co-chaired by UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, presented a report, A New Global Partnership, to the United Nations Secretary General recommending a set of 12 new goals to achieve by 2030 what the MDGs started. Significantly, this new agenda includes a goal on empowering women and girls and achieving gender equality.

This year I am joined in representing Mothers’ Union by Rhoda Luvuno Wabukale, our Provincial President in Kenya. This morning, following some recovery from jetlag, Rhoda told me about her hopes and dreams for the development of Mothers’ Union in Kenya to further the empowerment of women and girls. In particular, she sees a real need for girls to be provided with sanitary pads – something we take for granted in the UK – so that they can maintain their dignity and freedom during their period. Many girls are unable to attend school during menstruation because they have no sanitary protection, and are further put off attending school if they have bled visibly at school and been stigmatised by other students.

Although CSW proper starts on Monday, we have already been working on the agreed conclusions, the outcome document setting out what governments should do on the year’s theme. I have met with the UK Government Equalities Office (GEO) who lead on the negotiations on behalf of the UK, and submitted our recommendations to them – as well as to an NGO representative on another government’s delegation. To my delight, some of these recommendations have made it into the second draft of the agreements.

This year, I also have the pleasure of representing the Church of England. The Anglican Communion organises a delegation each year to participate at CSW and the Episcopal Church center hosts the delegation for a programme of worship, sharing and capacity building. I will certainly be in good company!