United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, Session 59

Each year hundreds of women from around the world attend the UN Commission on the Status of Women. I attended for my sixth year and found the program to be as exciting as ever, making me wish I had more than the two days I was able to participate.

As a delegate for a Non-Governmental Organization, specifically Medical Women’s International Association, the main task is to find out what the United Nations, individual member nations and other NGO’s have been doing during the previous year. In addition to this review, this year’s meeting was a time to reflect on the progress that has been made in the world since the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in 1995 in Beijing: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/platform/  What was important about the Beijing Conference, as compared with the previous three, was the development by delegates of a Platform for Action, with goals of achieving greater equality and opportunity for women. This is a link to the Platform for Action: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/pdf/BDPfA%20E.pdf

This year’s Commission was meant to consider the progress that has been made toward these goals and Medical Women’s International Association(MWIA) held a Parallel Event entitled The Role of MWIA in Promoting Health and Reproductive Rights since Beijing and Beyond. Other than MWIA presenters, we were fortunate to be able to hear about the work of H.E. Professor Malgorzata Fuszara, the Polish Government Plenipotentiary for Equal Treatment and of Ruchira Gupta, Apne Aap Founder and Woman of Distinction Awardee NGOCSWNY 2015. Here are links to a two-part series to Professor Gupta’s work from PBS Newshour: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/police-inaction-human-trafficking-india/ and http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/rescue-girls-sex-trafficking-indian-activists-confront-tradition-family-ties/

For my contribution to the MWIA Parallel event, I reflected on incidents at university campuses in both Canada and the United States in which young women have been aggressively sexually harassed or assaulted and the culture of Guyland that is failing to prevent these actions. I believe that it is important for us to reflect on these incidents which are occurring among the most wealthy and privileged young people and ask ourselves why we have not been successful in making universities a safe place for young women. In examining these incidents, researchers have been able to develop some possible areas of study to eliminate these threats. Also, I wanted to focus on what women’s organizations in particular can do to improve safety on campus.

In order to understand why this issue concerns me, studies indicate that 25% of young women are victims of sexual aggression in North American Universities and 33% experience “stressful sexual harassment”. This is in the context of underreporting, which we know is standard for both sexual assault and sexual harassment. Naturally,recommendations include seeking better data in further studies, but they also include education with respect to what constitutes sexual assault and sexual harassment, which is concerning given the level of education, knowledge and sophistication of the young men and women at universities. This recommendation, which is consistent in all of the centres, truly suggests that neither young men nor young women understand what constitutes sexual assault and sexual harassment. Fundamentally, what does our culture promote as normal sexual relations since sexual assault and sexual harassment are not clearly understood. This vignette, reported by Newsner, does indicate the level of ignorance I wanted those attending the parallel event to consider: http://www.newsner.com/en/2015/03/a-boy-sexually-assaulted-her-daughter-in-school-her-reaction-omg-she-is-amazing/

It was gratifying that medical and graduate students attending the event approached me afterword with their own stories of exactly the kind of harassment we were discussing. A number said that they were unaware of how their own institutions actually support young men and women facing sexual exploitation, and that they were going to find out. For me, that’s a good enough outcome for this year’s Commission on the Status of Women. When you look at the progress in women’s rights in the past twenty years, it’s best not to set the bar too high.

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