“The great challenge of this conference is to give voice to women everywhere whose experiences go unnoticed, whose words go unheard. Women comprise more than half the world’s population, 70% of the world’s poor, and two-thirds of those who are not taught to read and write. We are the primary caretakers for most of the world’s children and elderly. Yet much of the work we do is not valued — not by economists, not by historians, not by popular culture, not by government leaders… If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely — and the right to be heard.”
These were the words spoken by Hillary Clinton in 1995, during the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Twenty years later and the fight for women’s rights is far from over. Last month, the U.N. held Beijing+20, the Fifty-Ninth Commission on the Status of Women. The WomanStats Project was lucky enough to be able to send a delegation of 25 people to the conference (myself included).
While I’m sure spending any week at the United Nations would be an interesting experience, having the opportunity to spend a week at the United Nations during Beijing+20? That was amazing.
During the conference, I had the opportunity to speak with official delegates, with members of foreign ministries, with activists, and with a myriad of other individuals. During the WomanStats presentation to UNITAR, I spoke with a woman from the Liberian Foreign Ministry who was incredibly passionate about getting women involved in the Liberian government. At another point, I spoke with a woman who was coordinating the placement of water pumps in rural Africa, with the intent to empower women. I met so many, truly passionate individuals fighting for the rights of women worldwide.
I also attended panel discussions on everything from the status of Syrian refugees in Jordan in the “Women and Armed Conflict: A Regional Perspective” panel to a discussion on the status of women in Africa with panelists from across the continent in the “Assessing Implementation in Africa” panel. I was also able to attend a truly moving panel put on by women from several Pacific Island states. They talked about the ways in which climate change disproportionately effects women and children. At one point, the ambassador from Palau gave a heart wrenching speech addressing the existential threat climate change poses to his country. (Several islands in the Pacific have already been rendered uninhabitable by rising sea levels.) The panel also gave insight into how to combat the issues of women and climate change, as the panelists addressed how to strengthen implementation of the Beijing Plan for Action, including by calling for a Security Council resolution similar to UNSCR 1325. The passion of all those involved was moving.
Most incredibly, I also had the opportunity to interview Ghada Saba, a U.N. Gender Equality Champion. As a film maker in Jordan, she’s worked tirelessly to address issues of domestic violence in Jordan and to improve the status of female Syrian refugees in Jordan, many of whom don’t know their rights and have few options. (Child marriage, honor-killings, and domestic violence are three of the most serious problems they face.) She also talked about the problems with inheritance and guardianship laws in Jordan. Speaking to someone who has dedicated her life to improving the lives of other women was really powerful.
As someone still in college, talking to such amazing people can honestly be a little daunting. Not only are many of these men and women in positions of power—they are also passionate people who can honestly say they are making a difference for women worldwide. Whether they are advocating for women as part of a national women’s ministry or fighting for women’s economic rights as part of a grassroots NGO, everyone I met at the U.N. was impressive. When we first arrived at the conference, I was a little worried that I might not have very much to offer, which is why I was so incredibly pleased to realize just how much we, the WomanStats Project, bring to the table.
From day one, I met so many people interested in our data project. I talked to other NGOs who weren’t able to collect their own data. I talked to members of foreign ministries who wanted to use our data to write their own grants or to make cross-country comparisons. Every single person I talked to was thrilled to find out about the WomanStats database. We weren’t only interesting, we were necessary. Because there is such a dearth of information on the status of women worldwide, WomanStats fills a gap that no other organization has been able to address.
On a personal level, there was something so incredible about being able to go out on the official U.N. delegate’s floor and say, “Do you need statistics on the status of women worldwide? The WomanStats Project is the most comprehensive database on the status of women. We collect data along 360+ variables and in 175 countries. Best of all, it’s available completely for free, online at womanstats.org.” And then to have delegates actually stop, ask questions, and express interest? It was incredible! I love being part of an organization that is helping improve women’s lives by making the status of women visible.
Spending a week at the United Nations discussing the status of women was far more than I could have ever imagined. I met amazing people who have dedicated their lives to improving the status of women across the globe. I attending fascinating panels highlighting both improvements and the areas where more work is necessary. And I had amazing opportunities to interview individuals from various countries. I’m continually inspired by how much individuals, NGOs, and countries have been able to make small changes with huge impacts. Most of all, being able to bring something incredible to the table through the WomanStats Project was so empowering. I can’t wait until next year’s conference!