After a long Red-Eye flight, I spent the morning of my first day at the United Nations observing a meeting where representatives from almost every country discussed data on women’s issues in their countries. Although I had been to the United Nations before, this was the first time I really got to see diplomatic action. This first meeting was really interesting because I got to listen to the perspectives and needs of various countries. Each region seemed to have its own issue to focus on while at the Beijing+20 Conference. Many African countries stressed the fact that they did not have much data on Gender Based Violence (GBV), which is a huge problem facing African women. On the other hand, Western European and North American representatives stressed the importance of the rights of lesbian and transwomen. I learned a lot about the things that mattered most to women in various countries and what data people had and needed.
I learned even more at an event hosted by the Dominican Republic which talked about domestic violence against women. One panelist noted that because domestic violence takes place in the home, children are at risk too. She added that these children may think this type of behavior is normal, so they will replicate it in their lives. Violence against women does not only harm women, but men and children too. It can be a vicious cycle that lives on through families, but we have the opportunity to stop it by reaching out to people and sharing with them both their worth and the worth of others. Nevertheless, I also learned that girls in the Dominican Republic go to school more often than boys, but there are still systematic problems for women. Noteworthy quote: “Girls might be doing better in school, but boys are still running the country and perpetrating violence against women.” Despite these problems, the fact that girls are getting an education is encouraging. They are discovering their rights and hopefully will be able to fight back against patriarchal norms that threaten their safety.
My absolute favorite event was held by Austria and discussed women, peace, and security. There, a Fulbright Scholar from Libya shared her experience and the experience of her female colleagues during the Libyan Revolution a few years ago. She talked about how women handled violence against them both during the Revolution and at other times. In Libya, people don’t talk about private things, especially if they have been violated. Many times, people suggest that the best way to fight this is to encourage people to speak out. However, this Libyan woman said that this is not probable for Arab women. There are no laws to protect their rights and their families will kick them out. Being brave and standing up for themselves and others is simply not an option, according to this Libyan speaker. Unfortunately, she did not propose any other ways to fight this enormous problem.
The biggest thing I learned from Beijing+20 is that people want we have! I have always taken the WomanStats database for granted and assumed that professionals and experts on gender issues had access to this kind of information. Boy was I wrong. People from various tiers of the United Nations, such as the WHO and OCHA, told me personally that what we had was unique, important, and vastly needed.
Being a part of this organization that is helping people gather the information needed to better the lives of women in their countries is so important to me. I remember when we were explaining our database at Brigham Young University’s “WeForShe” event, many curious bystanders asked what we were doing to help the women we researched. At the time, my best answer was that we make sure that their stories are never forgotten. However, I can see that what we are doing—the information collected and the stories we tell—can (and hopefully will) help the advancement of women’s rights around the world.
My final takeaway from Beijing+20 was how caring everyone was about women’s rights and gender equality. People from most branches of the international community came together to share their thoughts, ideas, and plans of action for implementation of gender equality. Unfortunately, many people were still so divided on issues, which halted progress for some key discussions and opportunities to really affect the document. European NGOs were arguing about the definition of prostitution, while North American NGOs debated the meaning of the word ‘caucus.’ Discussions like these unfortunately caused representatives to stray off course, but I could still understand that every single one of them cared deeply about their issues. I think that a lot of these debates happened because their instigators felt so deeply passionate about their issues and they needed others to understand the importance of what they were trying to say. Their efforts to make their voices heard are commendable, but I still feel like they hindered a lot of progress that could have been made during the conference.