New York State of Mind

Once again this year I will represent Medical Women’s International Association at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, in New York City. I keep pondering the irony that the priority theme of this year’s Commission is Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls and that we are focusing on this theme in such an urban setting as New York City.

It is only five years ago that the plight of rural women was considered at the Commission. This same theme is being considered once again because the meetings five years ago did not result in agreement being reached on how to meet the challenges facing rural women and girls. During the past five years, UN agencies and Civil Society have been working regularly to develop a proposed Outcome Document that stands a better chance of agreement. This document sets out the legal framework for gender equality that member states agree to support by the end of the Commission on the Status of Women.

What are the issues facing rural women and girls in their quest for equality? Think of the impact of climate change and unsustainable farming practices on rural life. Think of the barriers to women owning land in some parts of the world. Think of the financial barriers women face even in our own country. The issues of migrancy are particularly problematic for rural women. Rural women and girls do not have the access to adequate health and reproductive health support. They do not have access to legal support when required. For all these difficulties, there is overlap with the issues faced by women and girls in an urban setting, but the remedies are more difficult to establish and maintain for rural women.

One of the most amazing aspects of this meeting is that there are always women attending who have never been to New York City or the United Nations. It is always inspiring to speak with them about their experience of the city and the institution. Over the years I have attended this meeting, and in all the years I have come to New York, I find that my faith in the city grows, while my faith in the organization diminishes.

The United Nations was built on lofty goals and tremendous idealism, but countries that deny women basic rights sit on the UN Human Rights Council. The treatment of the State of Israel by the United Nations has been worrisome at best. It is the Church Center for the United Nations that has most inspired me; its chaplains and its mission exemplify the spirit I wish I could find in all of the institutions of the UN.

The city, however, and the spirit of its people, have emerged stronger through the challenges they have faced. New York City lives and breathes and invigorates. I learn something every time I visit New York. I am like Tom Wolfe who said, “One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes, as in five years.”

At the end of my time at the Commission on the Status of Women, I expect I will feel discouraged about my United Nations experience, but I will leave New York longing to hold on to a New York state of mind.

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:  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:

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: and

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:

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.