2 UN Insiders; 2 Views of Women's Progress

As those from around the globe converge on U.N. headquarters and sideline events this week for the Commission on the Status of Women, two people who've worked with the U.N. offer insights on women's rights gains.
Marcy Hersh, U.N. representative and senior advocate for women and girls' rights, at Yida refugee camp in South Sudan in May 2013.
Marcy Hersh, U.N. representative and senior advocate for women and girls' rights, at Yida refugee camp in South Sudan in May 2013.

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)- Twenty years ago, Aung San Suu Ki delivered the keynote address in Beijing at the U.N.‘s Fourth World Conference on Women by video because she was under house arrest at the time. The internationally known political prisoner, now freed, urged "mutual respect and understanding between men and women, instead of patriarchal domination and degradation."

At that same historic gathering on women's rights, then-first lady of the United States Hillary Rodham Clinton famously declared that women's rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights, emphasizing the phrase generated in the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights.

Now it's 2015 and people from around the globe are converging on U.N. headquarters and sideline events around New York for a meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women from March 9 through 20, marking the two decades since those famous Beijing speeches and the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action.

Women's advocates have achieved progress since Beijing, according U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Melinda Gates, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and other notable figures who shared the stage at UN Women's celebratory launch of Planet 50-50 last week, calling for gender equality by 2030. "But we still have far to go," was the mantra repeated by everyone.

Just how far have things come then, and what's the unfinished business?

"Closing the gap in gender equality is the unfinished business of the 21st century," Clinton said at the 6th annual Women's Empowerment Principles U.N. event last week.

Far from the limelight surrounding the big star-studded official events, two other people offered Women's eNews insights they have gained from their two different posts.

Marcy Hersh is U.N. representative and senior advocate for women and girls' rights at the nonprofit Refugees International.

Amir Dossal is chairperson of the Global Partnership Forum, a nonprofit that builds partnerships between the private sector, governments and civil society in support of the U.N.‘s Millennium Development Goals and emerging Sustainable Development Goals. Previously, as U.N. chief liaison for partnerships, he managed the $1 billion gift to the U.N. Foundation by media mogul Ted Turner and forged strategic alliances to address the Millennium Development Goals

Marcy Hersh

When you ask Hersh about the most important milestone of the past 20 years in her line of work, she mentions a little-known handbook of practical, gender-sensitive guidance for humanitarian fieldwork published in 2005 by the Interagency Standing Committee.

Hersh is part of a team revising those "Guidelines on Gender-Based Violence Interventions" for re-release this year.

Broken down into eight action sheets-including water and sanitation, food security and nutrition, shelter, health and others- it provides specific advice on accommodating women's needs when delivering aid.

On food security, for instance: "Consider placing two women guardians (with vests and whistles) to oversee off-loading, registration, distribution and post-distribution of food. These women can signal to the security focal point if there are problems."

On health services: "Locate them within walking distance of communities and on safe access roads" and "make opening times convenient for women and children (household duties, water and wood collection, school times)."

Hersh hopes the new development goals to launch later this year, called the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, will offer similarly concrete advice for "tangible intermediary steps we need to be taking as a community to achieve these lofty goals."

For all the gains of recent years-after all the conferences and diplomatic resolutions- Hersh said it can still be tough work for those pushing to prioritize women's needs early in humanitarian project planning,

For instance, last year she went to the Philippines as part of Refugees International's humanitarian relief response to the devastating typhoon. While there she said she encountered extensive eye rolling from U.N. peacekeepers and humanitarians working for various organizations when she raised the threat of gender-based violence or the need to consider special protections for women.

"They are like, ‘Oh isn't it adorable that you are thinking about women's rights, but we are busy trying to save lives and must focus on water and health care etc.,'" she said.

She further explained that when women's needs are not established from the get-go, relief efforts not only fail to protect them from sexual violence, but also fail to ensure access to all that life-saving aid.

For instance, if a water source is located far from where the women are staying, "they are not going to feel safe walking there and are therefore not going to get it."

Hersh said the challenge can be worse in countries where women's social status is relatively high, such as the Philippines "where everyone assumes women are fine." The Philippines ranked ninth out of 111 countries in the 2014 World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report. Countering this assumption remains a major part of her work.

Prior to the typhoon, 1-in-5 Filipino women experienced some sort of gender-based violence and 1-in-10 experienced sexual violence between the ages of 15 and 49, according to Philippine Commission on Women Fact Sheet. In the wake of the typhoon, the Interagency Standing Committee reported that compromised security exacerbated that risk in the areas that were most affected, putting 49,000 women between the ages of 15 and 49 at immediate risk.

"These are old stories," Hersh said, referring to the statistics on gender-based violence, "but they are just as true today as they have been for many years."

Amir Dossal

Dossal credits former U.N. Secretary-General Koffi Annan for making great strides toward unifying the U.N.‘s formerly piecemeal approach toward women's equality through his Track II reform process which, Dossal said, reorganized the administrative structure of the U.N. Secretariat and consolidated various initiatives and funds in hopes of strengthening the U.N.‘s overall impact.

He also praised Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for carrying this idea to fruition with the creation of UN Women as single agency that focuses on parity for women.

Dossal said that among the U.N.s development goals, the first one, to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, has done the most for women "who tend to bear the brunt of extreme poverty."

Progress in reducing poverty and hunger, he said, also improved the health of mothers and children, which in turn positively impacts their learning potential and creates new employment opportunities. "Women's health is at the core of sustainable development," he said.

Globally, by 2010, 700 million people were living in extreme poverty (as defined by living on $1.25 a day), which means the target of MDG No. 1-to halve 1990 poverty rate by 2015-was met five years ahead of time.

Likewise, the global community is on track to meet the target of halving the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by the end of this year. That said, 1.2 billion people still live in extreme poverty and 842 million are undernourished.

The key to tackling any global problem, Dossal said, is "to engage all actors." That means international organizations and governments, which set norms and standards; academia, which provides research and data as a backbone for authenticity; and the private sector, which provides management and technical leadership skills. Civil society groups-international and national nongovernmental organizations working together-meanwhile, provide efficient delivery mechanisms.

Would you like to Send Along a Link of This Story?