Going to the United Nations has always been a dream of mine. I am passionate about raising awareness regarding the status of women around the world, so attending the Commission on the Status of Women, also known as Beijing+20, was the opportunity of a lifetime.
My first day at the conference, I was blown away by the size of the event. Everywhere I went, people surrounding me were speaking dozens of different languages, discussing the things they heard and saw throughout the day. Women and men from countries and nations that could not be more different were interacting, learning about each other’s cultures, concerns, and passions. It was encouraging to see that people who culturally had very little in common were united by their desire to improve the lives of women not only in their own country, but in countries around the world. I was most impressed by how willing those at the conference were to learn from each other. In one parallel event I attended hosted by UN Habitat, those in attendance discussed what was and was not working in their rural communities. One woman brought up her concern that large UN agencies, such as the one hosting this event, were making changes and rules to implement in developing countries without being on the ground to adapt new policies to specific communities. Her rural community had practices and customs that were preventing these changes from being implemented, and her government was unwilling to enforce new regulations. Others chimed in and agreed, expressing their concerns that while improving land ownership rights of women and other rights regarding property were important, it was nearly impossible to do with the specific cultural barriers that varied across the world. For the remainder of the event, I watched as the heads of various UN agencies interacted directly with leaders from rural communities in Ethiopia, India, Thailand, and Eritrea. It struck me that these UN professionals had just as much, if not more, to learn from these rural community leaders as the leaders had to learn from heads of agencies.
This seemed to me to be a recurring theme throughout the conference: the exchange of knowledge between participants in the conference and UN delegates and employees. This was a chance for people to get their voices heard. I went into the conference thinking that being at the United Nations, everyone would get along well and conflict would be minimal. I was surprised to find that tension was high in many meetings, especially those regarding NGOs. I had naively assumed that NGOs and the UN would get along well, working hand-in-hand to improve countries. However, I quickly learned that this is not the case. The relationship between the UN and the thousands of NGOs representing themselves at the conference is a complicated one, with varying layers of frustration, particularly on the side of NGOs. One of the main complaints that seemed to appear again and again among the NGOs was a lack of understanding. To them, the UN seemed unwilling to consider their viewpoints and opinions regarding policies. This surprised me, as I had thought UN agencies would generally value the advice of NGOs who operate on the ground in development projects within countries. Even so, I enjoyed the back-and-forth that was happening between the UN agencies and NGOs, as it provided me with an opportunity to learn about the issues many countries faced that the UN was accused of ignoring or overlooking.
I was incredibly impressed by the odds many of the directors of NGOs and even UN agencies had to overcome to make it as development leaders. One woman who spoke on a panel ran away from her home in a rural village in Cameroon at the age of 12. The practice of breast ironing was being forced on her, something I had never heard of. She wanted to escape the physical pain and be allowed to pursue the education that she desired above all else. She was a success story, and returned to her rural village after graduating college to raise awareness regarding the dangers of breast ironing, and encourage community leaders to educate girls. I heard countless stories similar to this one throughout the conference of women and men who overcame all odds and used their success to inspire change in their communities.
One of my favorite events was “Beyond Zero,” a parallel event hosted by Kenya featuring the First Lady of Kenya. She spoke about the new health initiatives she was implementing in her country, namely a mobile health clinic. As a pre-med student, I am incredibly interested in improving medical practices in developing countries, were rural communities can be difficult to reach. This mobile clinic featured technology that allowed the health professionals traveling in the van to communicate with doctors in the capital via video conference. This mobile health clinic has improved awareness of HIV/AIDs in rural communities, and has also allowed leaders of communities to learn of the dangers of female genital mutilation. The First Lady of Kenya was excited about her position that allowed her to begin programs like this, programs that are having obvious and serious beneficial outcomes in her country.
I learned a lot at a parallel event focused on engaging men and boys in improving the status of women around the world. I had noticed during my time at the conference that women in attendance far outnumbered men. The panelists recognized this, and suggested that in order for greater strides to be made, men and boys need to be made more equal partners in improving women’s status, particularly in the patriarchal societies. As one panelist said, “Women cannot create a gender equal society by themselves.” A panelist from Denmark suggested that the world implement something that has had great success in his country, and as he said “men need to be feminized a bit and women should be masculinized a bit.” This particular event showed me, yet again, that we have so much to learn from each other. We learn from failures, but we also learn from each other’s successes. It is simply up to us to implement this knowledge from other countries into our own policies and practices.
I most enjoyed my time attending the official proceedings. It was enthralling to see countries interact through diplomatic statements and even attacks. I had the opportunity to interview Lucy Alcock, a delegate who is the policy director in the Ministry of Women in New Zealand. She shared with me stories of success in including women in the workforce in greater numbers after a devastating earthquake destroyed the economic opportunities of the community’s most vulnerable members, mainly women. She was proud of the work that her country was doing to improve opportunities for women. I had researched New Zealand before the interview, and was impressed by how equal the country was ranked in terms of gender equality. It was inspirational that even given their reputation as one of the most gender-equal societies, they were not stopping. Their ministry was designed to constantly seek ways to increase gender equality, and they are doing just that.
As a global community, we have so much to learn from each other. We simply must be willing to recognize our own faults and weaknesses, and work with others to improve. I met with a director at the UN Population Fund and listened to his stories of running hospitals in Israel in the 1980s and teaching at schools in Sudan. He spoke about backpacking around India, volunteering wherever he went, and swimming across rivers in Columbia to visit far away villages. I asked him if he had any advice for someone who wanted to live a life that was not just as adventurous as his own, but meaningful as well. He told me that I needed to follow my passions, and get out of myself and into the world. “You won’t find out who you’re supposed to be or what you should be doing by staying in one place. Get out there and do something.” More than anything, that is what this conference taught me. I will not improve the world by simply thinking about it. I need to take the many things I learned, and connect with the hundreds of people that I met, and go out into the world. I feel that this conference has greatly expanded my outlook on the world. I am more convinced than ever that my focus on international relations is right for me. I am excited to take what I have learned and implement it in whichever career I enter into, whether it be medicine, politics, or non-profit work. I have always believed that I am capable of being a force for good in the world, and as I saw others at this conference who not only believe that, but live that daily through their life work, I realized that I have been given the tools I need to make that difference, and I am more motivated than ever to make my dreams a reality.