On UN women, theme framing, buzz words and rockstars...

24 February 2011

It's been a real challenge with this non-connectivity! I am still using my phone as main point for connection, but it's really intermittent and slow, driving me up the wall. I cannot imagine how we can talk about science and technology as a theme and have so little access to the internet at the same time. Urgh!

Can't get connected in either the main UN building, the church building, the salvation army building, the hotel (without paying USD16/day - which I am saving up for until I really need it!) or in the deli next door where I am drinking so much weak USD1 coffee I'm almost floating.

I went to the opening session yesterday (and have been tweeting like a mad woman since) and there were no legendary long queues at the registration. The queues were more from the lines of women trying to get to the 4th floor using just two elevators. After getting into the main hall - which was full - the session started with the usual speeches. The main table had two men and one woman speaker, one of whom was Michelle Bachelet, whom everyone was excited to welcome. Lots of claps for her.

Her speech was the highlight of the morning for me. She spoke clearly about the strategic areas that UN Women will be working on, and the approaches. I can't remember them all now - will have to check tweets - but the one that struck me was the commitment of UN Women to lead by example - i.e. a significant area of work was to increase the representation of women in the UN at all, especially decision-making, levels. She cited some percentages, which showed clearly that the higher the level, the fewer the women. So she stressed the fact that UN needs to be accountable to its own calls and recommendations to integrate gender equality, and this is one concrete and important step to take.

Other speeches were looking at how to increase women and girls participation into STEM - buzz word at this CSW, meaning science, technology, engineering and mathematics - both in education and employment. It was quite frustrating and puzzling to see why science and tech were looked at so narrowly. Why not tackle science and tech in terms of the advancement of women's rights as a whole? And, similarly, why not tackle education as a thematic area on its own? Or access to employment as a thematic area on its own? Combining them seems to not do any justice to any of the three areas, or force conversations to overspill from the narrow focus anyway, because really, it's not possible to speak about each of them in isolation. The other item high on the agenda was violence against women (VAW). But, again, in a way that doesn't seem to connect science and tech into VAW. It's early days yet, so let's see how it goes.

I then left the main session to go for the side events. The church centre was also crowded with women wanting to go up to different levels using again just two elevators. Jan Moolman and I went to the session on women's empowerment principles. This is a UNIFEM backed initiative to make companies and/ or the private sector accountable and invested in integrating gender equality and non-discrimination principles in their work. That was quite interesting, especially given the science and tech thematic area we are talking about. I wonder if Mac, IBM, Facebook, Nokia, AT&T have signed on to this. The principles were developed in consultation with the private sector, and companies have signed on to say they are committed to it, and will take steps to include it. It's meant to act as a guide, and feels like a kind of tool. Check them out here.

Is this something we can bring to the IGF to speak with the private sector for example? And why isn't UNIFEM itself bringing this to the IGF? Seems like a practical and consultative model that is usable?

We broke into small groups and discussed some of the challenges to women's access to employment in our countries (which I appreciated, since it looked at employment broadly, and not just in science & tech). A huge barrier appears to be cultural expectations and the multiple roles and burdens women still have to bear, regardless of development context of the country. An interesting point raised in my group was by a woman who worked in a legal aid centre in Norway: there is a legislatively mandated 40% quota for women to be in decision-making positions in publicly listed companies (if I'm not mistaken), but what companies have done is reconfigured themselves so they fall just short of the required number of board members to have to comply with the quota. In other words, the law or the quota measure may be there, but if the sexist culture doesn't change (the belief that women can't handle decision making), people in power will always work around it so that status quo remains. Sad really.

Then we went to the final session where it felt very familiar. Deanna Kosaraju from the Anita Borg Foundation presented on the Grace Hopper celebration (fun fact, Grace Hopper came up with the term "bug" from removing a real bug from a computer relay). Preethi Gupta from the NY Science Hall presented her approach in creating opportunities for young people to meaningfully engage with science & tech, and to create an identity for themselves in this area by becoming "explainers" in science centres. Explainers are basically people who engage into conversation with visitors on exhibits etc, and are often young people from high school etc, who learn a lot about science and tech in the process.

Then Abigail Disney spoke about her award winning documentary, "pray the devil back to hell", which is a really awesome documentary about how the women in Liberia decided to take over the stagnant and pie-fighting armed civil conflict in Liberia and organised sustained sit ins and marches until a real shift came about. The hero of the Liberian women's peace movement, Leymah Gbowee was at the event, and she spoke at the Q & A. she introduced herself as a revolutionary (awesome!), and said, look, patriarchy has figured us out. We have been great at mobilising for change and when a small change takes place, patriarchy figures us out, and we find ourselves putting our time and energy being stuck in conferences and talking and talking, and we are not just going to the issue and tackling it. Someone asked her if she is going for the launch of UN Women and she said no. Who knows if patriarchy has figured women's rights work at the UN, and creates all these different structures, and we bicker and fight amongst ourselves about roles and power lines and in the meantime, the real issue is left abandoned. We need to go back to the issue. I can see how she inspired an entire movement of peace. She is powerful and compelling. And just awesome. Abigail also showed a 11 min video short called "women, war &peace - the untold story", narrated by Geena Davis no less. It was...interesting.

I went and spoke with abigail disney. she was a rockstar and everyone wanted to speak with her. so i only managed a 2 minute hello, i'm from apc, not sure if you remember but you supported our feminist tech exchange (FTX) 2 years ago which was really an amazing event, and has grown into national FTXes in at least 12 countries. and has real impact. i said i'm sure you're v busy, but would be great if you could come, she said of course she will definitely try because we do important work, we shall see!

Today is quieter. only managed to go for one session so far. Waiting for 6pm to go for the one by ILGA, and tomorrow going to hit main sessions again.

And by the way, yesterday was stupidly cold, it's not funny. Today it's better, although still not funny.

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Responses to this post

that's real irony..cant understand how it comes there is so bad connectivity. come on we speak on icts, in un, in the usa, in the middle of New York ??? is it about old fashion style of un, security or money?
Purple Duck - 7 years 29 weeks ago
Jac agree with you re strange framing of this year theme - why they squeezed together education, employment and technology - each of them complex areas and critical enough issues to be tackled individually? it really doesnt give much space to go more in depth in the debates and link this year theme to previous and upcoming topics - vaw and rural women. make no sense to me. and where have been left women's rights and section j in talks about ICTs?
KF - 7 years 29 weeks ago
yes, beijing platform for action seems to have completely disappeared from the discussions. are we buildng from previous work or reinventing the wheel? on one hand, it seems to be a focussing of science and tech issues, on the other hand, it seems to be conflating so many things together it makes all issues a disservice..
jhybe - 7 years 27 weeks ago

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