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Keynote Address by Angela E.V. King
The Commission an the Status of Women : Achievements and Challenges (1946-2006)

[Episcopal News Service] 

The following  address was given at the Orientation For Anglican Delegates to the Commission an the Status of Women on the Occasion of its 15th Session.

I am delighted to be with you here today to celebrate the 50th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women’s.  We also have to celebrate your coming together yet another year under the Anglican Consultative Council, the Anglican Observer Mission to the United Nations and the International Anglican Women’s Network (IAWN).  To me, this is a true end product of the Commission’s work.  My congratulations to all of you for making this happen, particularly to the organizers, Mrs. Phoebe Griswold and the Anglican Women’s Empowerment and to those from all 37 Provinces who have traveled from other lands or from states other than New York, to be here to celebrate this occasion.

The year 2006 not only marks the Commission’s 50th session, but the 60th anniversary of the United Nations itself.  A truly auspicious year, 2006 has seen within months, the election to the highest office in the land of women on three continents:  Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia (Africa),  Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany  (Europe) and Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile (Latin America).  For the first time the cement ceiling has been broken in the most male-dominated permanent organ of the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, which is finally headed by a woman, Justice Rosalyn Higgins of the UK. 

Thanks to women like Eleanor Roosevelt (US), Minerva Bernardino (Dominican Republic) and others, the Commission on the Status of Women was designated 60 years ago by the Assembly as the main intergovernmental body concerned with the advancement of women and the achievement of  their fundamental human rights.  I’m sure many of you are wondering how come it is just having its 50th session if it was established 60 years ago?  Some time ago, due to financial and other pressures it and a few other functional commissions, met every two years instead of annually.   The CSW now, however, proudly celebrates its 50th session—a landmark indeed.  Its members have meticulously discharged their responsibilities dealing with critical issues to women as they arise with its membership evolving to what it is today, 45 members instead of the original 15.  It is a time to look back and more importantly to look forward to see how best women and especially Anglican women, can influence the success or failure of challenges we face.

1.  The Workings of the Commission and Interaction with Groups

To most of us, the hierarchy of United Nations institutions is labyrinthine and even Machiavellian.  Not so.  CSW falls under one of the UN’S five principal organs, the Economic and Social Council.  The others are the General Assembly, the Security Council, the International Court of Justice and the Trusteeship Council which is now almost obsolete as so few countries remain dependencies  or colonies.

The Commission’s membership is elected on the basis of  regional balance initially for two years.  All regions, Asia including the Pacific and Western Asia, Africa, Eastern and Western Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean have representatives who speak on behalf of their regions and countries.   Delegates point to common problems and success stories.  The Bureau of the Commission is responsible for seeing that it runs smoothly, for ensuring that new issues are placed on its agenda, for guiding meetings so as to resolve differences through skilful negotiation and that decisions are taken on its future work program.

An historical look at the composition of the CSW shows that it has always reflected that of the UN Member States as a whole.  When it was established in 1946 there were only 51 States members of the UN.  They were mainly from what is now called the North with a handful of Middle Eastern, African, Asian and Latin American States.  The end of colonialism brought about independence for many nations and with that, immediate membership of the UN.  Hence the membership grew to 144 States by 1975, the year of the Mexico Conference and to 191 States today. This was reflected in the size and composition of the CSW itself.  As delegates are elected on the basis of their countries and regions, women’s groups at national level, if mobilized effectively, can influence not only the candidates put forward to speak on their country’s behalf at CSW but also their briefs on particular items on CSW’s agenda, well before the sessions. --- This is an important early stage entry point for Anglican women at the national level.

The CSW’s Bureau was first headed by a Dane, Bodil Beltrup. Another  Chairperson in the early days, known for her stylish hats even before Bella Abzug, was Minerva Bernardino from Dominican Republic.  Her real claim to fame is as one of only four women who, in 1946, signed the Charter of the United Nations in San Francisco. Together with Eleanor Roosevelt, she and others like Annie Jiaggi (Ghana) and Azziza Hussein (Egypt) later on, made women’s equality with men and their human rights for women, a main priority for the Organization.

How do the decisions of the Commission get implemented? 

Some of these  concern the running of the Commission and consequently remain at that level.  However, on issues having global implications, the Commission calls on governments and others to take action.  It forwards its agreed conclusions or resolutions through the Economic and Social Council for endorsement to the General Assembly.  Adoption by the Assembly with its wider membership of 191 States naturally has much more weight and reaches a wider audience of the public and the media.  In recent years there has been a trend towards approving agreements by consensus rather than by vote, leaving individual states the right to make reservations on particular aspects of a decision with which they may disagree.  These decisions nevertheless, while not having the weight of law, signal a public commitment by States to implement them.  For example, many States have taken action to implement resolutions requiring them to amend the constitution (Afghanistan, Brazil) or legislation to rid them of discrimination based on gender, to end discrimination against migrant women workers,  to end female genital mutilation  (Egypt, Senegal)or to grant women the right to inherit land (Rwanda, Tanzania). These decisions are veritable calls to action --- deeds not words.

The extent of implementation is then monitored by the Commission, the Council, the Assembly or the specialized agencies (e.g.WHO,ILO,UNESCO) concerned.  Much of this accountability and monitoring is loose and may not take place at all. Thus much is left to the States themselves to fully comply with resolutions.  This process, together with the lack of political will and competing priorities, is one of the main underlying weaknesses to current implementation.

Thus so much depends on activist church groups such as yours---Anglican women on the ground--- at the national and community level to ensure implementation is carrying out, including adequate earmarking of financial and human resources.  Activists may also include groups of women entrepreneurs, professionals, academics, women’s bureaux and women’s ministries who will pressure officials to follow up on commitments.  Should a subject be of particular concern (e.g. access to reproductive services, credit, party slates) women’s groups may use the decision as a tool for persuading or pressuring politicians or Members of Parliament to take action.  The media can be brought in to further expose lack of action.  This has been done in several countries where there is trafficking or violence against women in the form of battering (Sweden).

Mandates originating in the Commission have, through the authority of the General Assembly, spread to many institutions which would otherwise not considered the subject.  When I was the Jamaican delegate in the Third Committee of the General Assembly in the 1960s, it was taboo to use the terms “violence against women” or “domestic violence”, as these were regarded as internal state matters, not to be spoken of in the international arena.  It was women largely from civil society, fully aware of the undocumented damage being done to women and girls, who eliminated this taboo at Nairobi ---38 years after CSW was created.  Now the subject is commonplace in sectors such as human rights, health (the link with rape and HIV/AIDS and economics, through loss of time of battered women workers who have to miss work.  This is an illustration of how change and progress can be made by having a  two-way flow of information between delegate and NGO and vice versa.

In sum, the Commission has made its presence felt in all countries.   Its decisions, for example, have forced finance ministers in Africa, Asia and elsewhere, to focus not only on micro-credit and micro-banking for women, but on how to move to the next state by introducing and sustaining national gender budgets (e.g. Philippines, New Zealand, South Africa), and the next, by ensuring that gender perspectives are integrated at the macro-finance  level.  The power of its decisions has persuaded justice ministers to recommend abolition of discriminatory laws and a revision of all laws to ensure gender equality.

2.  Achievements and Entry Points for Women’s Groups

I know that as the historic session opens next Monday, you are all anxious to know about the challenges that lie ahead.  Ironically, challenges are linked to  CSW’s achievements, of  which there are many.  I have arbitrarily selected four:  setting international standards; creating an enabling environment for women’s advancement---an item of the Commission’s agenda this year;  raising public awareness to women’s role and loss of their potential;  and focusing on women in power and decision-making (another item on the agenda).

Standard setting, that is, the crafting for adoption of conventions that are legally binding on states parties. The most far-reaching relating to women is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted by the Assembly in 1979 and entered into force in 1981 and its Optional Protocol of 1999.  180 States have now ratified the Convention and 71, the Protocol.  I stress this, because the CSW is the only functional Commission of ECOSOC that has drafted this type of convention or treaty.  All other human rights treaties were drafted by the Commission on Human Rights.  Without the CSW it is doubtful whether this convention would have been adopted as early as it was.  Since the four world conferences and particularly the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action, the interaction and mutual reinforcement of, on the one hand, the set of norms enshrined in the Convention and, on the other, the Platform, have become even more fundamental to the advancement of women and the achievement of gender equality.  Any move under the guise of reform, to truncate or separate the program through moves away from New York of the CEDAW Committee from the central global UN program for the advancement of women, would seriously weaken the dynamism and impact of the program as a whole.

Without some of the earlier conventions such as the political rights of women many women here today might not have the vote.  Without that on the consent to marriage, minimum age for marriage and registration of marriages, women in more countries than at present may be married off under age and to partners whom they do not even know.  Today, as a result of the CSW there are very few countries where girls may marry below the age of 16 and even fewer where women cannot vote or participate in elections.

Second, creating an enabling environment for the achievement of equality between men and women, through data collecting, providing data and analysis on which government policy could reliably be based, holding  meetings, workshops as learning or training experiences and focusing on emerging issues that really affect women such as, HIV/AIDS, the differential impact of globalization on women, violence against women, and the plight of women refugees and in armed conflict.  CSW has also promoted vigorously the links between other bodies and itself to ensure their recognition of the cross-cutting nature of gender equality and its relevance to all sectors and programs.  Actions have included joint statements, joint publication of illustrative gender mainstreaming notes in various sectors (disarmament, peacekeeping) and interactive debates with other UN bodies including those responsible for human rights,  financing for development, poverty reduction, water, agriculture, forestry, nutrition, statistics, population, sustainable development, information communications technology (ICT).

It has required an enormous amount of effort on the part of delegates from governments, NGOs and other civil society partners and the UN system partners.  No statement on gender equality would have been incorporated into the final documents of the conferences on financing for development in Monterey or of the least developing countries in Brussels, without this tremendous collaboration of women and men.  Not only has the word spread to other functional commissions of the ECOSOC, but also to other organs. 

The third is making the public more aware of the need for women to fully participation in all aspects of society if gender equality, peace and development are to be lasting. To accomplish this, CSW organized or guided four international conferences, the Beijing+5 special session of the General Assembly (2000) and Beijing+10 (2005).  These Conferences starting in Mexico City in 1975, focused on “equality, development and peace”. 

Each conference had its own unique contribution.  The Mexico conference’s greatest contribution was bringing together so many women from all over the world.  The informal debates led them to discover that they faced common difficulties whether from legal, patriarchal or customary constraints.  Women determined together, to find solutions that covered not just a single country, but all women.  Mexico also called for the finalization of the CEDAW Convention and the establishment of UNIFEM and INSTRAW. Women leaders attending the conference included Princess Asraf (Iran), Jeanne Marie Cisse (Guinea), Valentina Tereshkova (USSR), Peggy Antrobus (Barbados) and many others.  Collectively nations set out a Ten-year Plan for the Women’s Decade and called on all States, UN organizations and NGOs to work together for its implementation.  The following conference in Copenhagen updated the Plan and prepared for the end of Decade Conference.

In 1985 in Nairobi, women of the third world voiced their demands from their perspectives more clearly.  They emphasized the stark reality of poverty, hunger and multiple hours of work.  This was compared to the seemingly esoteric demand by western women for equal pay for work of equal value.  In certain countries there was no formal work and certainly no compensation.  The fact that in many African and Asian countries up to 90% of agricultural work is done by women in addition to wood- and water- gathering, food preparation, care of children and the household---a huge management portfolio, worthy of any CEO--- all without pay came as an eye-opener to many women of the west. In other words Nairobi pointed to a polarization of priorities between the North and the South.  But the differences rather than hidden resentment, were finally out on the table  paving the way for Beijing to successfully sort these differences out.  Its 12 critical areas of concern represent a broad sweep of across-the-board needs while including areas of concern to particular countries or regions.  With its 30,000 strong contingent of government, NGO and media delegates, Beijing created a worldwide buzz not known before in the UN.  Its Declaration endorsed by 189 governments undertook to themselves implement the action blueprint in the Platform for Action. 

The meetings of 2000 and 2005 (mid-term and 10-year reviews) reflected the shifting spirit of compromise among States some of which felt that decisions could be reopened and changed.  Sadly much energy was spent on preventing the text of the Platform from being weakened rather than moving forward with new priorities and areas for concern.  One important element coming out of Beiing+5 was the idea of partnership with NGOs, private sector and men and boys, if implementation was to be a success.

Another, but different form of raising public awareness came through  resolutions highlighting the plight of women in particular countries which calling for annual reports on progress.  Aghan and Palestinian women were
among these.

The fourth area is women in decision-making positions in the United Nations and internationally.  From the very outset of its discussions, CSW sought to call on governments and the Secretary-General to ensure that women had equal opportunities to higher level positions.  The first time that any Secretary-General addressed the Commission (1953 and 1954) Dag Hammarskjold gave assurances that women staff would have equal opportunities for recruitment and promotion.  Since them annual statistics have been a requirement by the Third and Fifth Committees.  The relentless pressure on the Secretariat year upon year,  produced some positive results as since the 1980s there has been an approximate 1% annual increase of women on professional posts.  In 1953 women held nearly 19% of professional posts.  Now they hold 43% posts subject to geography and 37% overall posts (geography and language).  A very slow rate of growth. At the higher echelons of ASG and USG the percentages are much lower, 20% and 15% respectively.  That a 50% target can be reached and sustained has been proven by UNFPA over a period of years.  At the diplomatic level, in 1972 there were no women Permanent Representatives, now there are 18, the highest number ever, but still only 9% of the total.

A very general assessment of the Commission’s work is that it has given women and men a set of tools for goal setting in their own countries and for holding accountable officials and institutions to ensure that mandated actions are carried out. It has provided a blueprint for action at all levels and by all types of groups and through the reports its requires annually for discussion and through the CEDAW Committee with which it maintains close contact, it has given a means of regular monitoring of progress and failures of States parties and for exchange of information on what works and what does not.  These instruments can be used by women in the audience today to call on your female and male Members of Parliament, your bishops, congresspersons, mayors and others to take action to meet the Millennium Development Goals, the Beijing Platform of the CEDAW Convention.  Scores of examples abound on how the CEDAW and the decisions of CSW have been used to bring pressure on governments and other players.  Costa Rica has used CEDAW to enact a law to protect women and children from fathers who will not acknowledge or support a child born outside of marriage. It introduced compulsory DNA testing to determine relationship and the onus under the law is on the father to prove otherwise. Botswana has cited the Convention to have the government adopt legislation to enable a Tswana woman to pass her nationality on to her children where her husband is a foreigner (Dow vs. The Attorney-General).  In Kuwait, women persuaded their government to grant them the vote last year under the provisions of CEDAW which it had ratified.  Egypt, Tanzania, Senegal and Tanzania, France and the United Kingdom are among countries with laws prohibiting female genital mutilation and of finding alternative ways of celebrating the passage from girlhood to adulthood.  A timely move as there are about 100-140 million women worldwide who have been cut often by other women, and 3 million girls cut annually—l girl every 15 seconds.  Morocco has enacted a very liberal Family Code in the last three years giving women the right to have custody of their children in cases of divorce and the right to initiate divorce proceedings.

  • Today, 50 sessions on, we see as we look back that there has been much progress.
  • The fact that we are all here today;
  • The fact that the Anglican Church has a woman Observer at the UN, Archdeacon Taimalelagi Fagamalama Tuatagaloa-Matalavea from Samoa, who has created an imaginative program and supported financially;
  • The fact that there has been a resounding consensus on resolution 13/31 on gender equality at the ACC, and
  • The fact that our current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams seems favorably disposed towards the ordination of women as priests and bishops.

These developments, ladies and gentlemen, are revolutionary and non-divisive for the Anglican Church and have been arrived at after long years of strategizing and struggle.  I think that we should take time out to applaud ourselves, our leaders and our Church.  Let us rise and clap.

Now let us turn to challenges ahead. I name five which overlap with some of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs):  poverty, violence against women including trafficking, HIV/AIDS, peace processes and women in power and decision-making positions.

Grinding poverty remains all too prevalent.  Recent estimates show that  over 1 billion live on less than $US 1.00 a day.  It is unlikely that MDG goal 6 of halving poverty by 2015 will be achieved although poverty levels have dropped noticeably in Asia.  Encouraging too is that in more that 30 countries, 14 of which are in the Sub-Saharan region, hunger has been reduced by 25%.  Nevertheless well over half of the world’s poor are women, many heading households.  The main causative factors have been unequal access to property, loans, credit, technology, skills and the prevalence of stereotypical attitudes about women’s roles.

Second, I would place violence against women including the growing scourge of trafficking.  It is estimated that between 100,000 and 140,000 children are trafficked annually including between 45,000 and 50,000 to the USA.  Obstacles to progress includes lack of funding for centers for battered women, for retraining violators, for training judges and other law enforcement official and recruiting more women police with  special mandates to hear cases in confidence.  Rape and other vicious forms of cruelty to women and children have been graphically reported in Darfur (Sudan) and Bunia (Cote d’Ivoire).  Most countries have enacted legislation but few have started effective implementation.  The international community with the help of local NGOs need to promote more vigorous and less sporadic, campaigns for zero tolerance of violence against women at community level (called for by Beijing+5), with churches and community leaders taking the initiative.  Rape, forced and underage marriage, acid burning, sutee and many other forms of violence have been set out in resolutions of the General Assembly. Women’s church groups would be unique in providing stronger social networks to support and reintegrate women who have been traumatized.  A country is as strong as its local institutions. Traditional practices when harmful to women, should not be vindicated in the name of culture. In such cases, lest there be any ambiguity or fear of insensitivity to local customs, the human rights of women are, and should be, our paramount guide.

Third, the HIV/AIDS pandemic poses a further challenge.  It has become the fourth largest killer worldwide according to the report on MDG goal 6.  Not only have over 20 million people died of it since its inception 25 years ago, but 39 million, 50% of whom are women, are living with HIV today.  Societies have disintegrated with adults either dead or dying and villages of orphans have been created.    Improving women’s rights, economic status and education may be the most important factors in ending or stemming the spread.  Thailand and Uganda have managed to do so.  The question of stigma is also vital.  When Mr. Mandela and the former leader of Mozambique admitted in public that close relatives had died of the disease, it opened the doors for others to stop hiding their illness and seek treatment.  Fighting stigma can uniquely be done by local women’s and church groups.  The fact that you are here proves that you are leaders of your communities. You are the ones who best know the people concerned and you can use your skills to persuade women and men, young and old, to use condoms and other forms of protection, and to have regular check-ups and later treatment.

The fourth challenge concerns participation in peace processes.  Security Council resolution 1325 of October 2000 on women, peace and security, was an historic decision on the part of the Council.  It recognized women’s contribution to peace processes, their value in negotiating at the peace table and the need for their full participation in all aspects of peace from conflict-prevention to post-conflict reconstruction.  The Mano River Women’s Peace Network, the Somali and Guatemalan women, Russian and Peruvian mothers and Argentinian grandmothers and other groups have led the way.  In Liberia and Sierra Leone, women as mothers were instrumental in getting child soldiers (girls and boys) to lay down arms.  Women have drafted language for peace agreements but later been ignored (Guatemala).  Notable exceptions are Afghanistan, Timor Leste, Liberia, and Rwanda.  Many of the women who passionately pursued  peace in the Mano River countries, crossed borders to campaign for Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to gain the Presidency of Liberia. However after disarmament and reintegration in these countries, many are asking how long can peace be sustained without immediate or “smart” projects to occupy youth by giving them the opportunity to acquire viable economic skills and a paying job.  Otherwise the youth will flow over the border to join other areas of conflict.  The prospect is daunting.

The final challenge deals with women in decision-making.  While we have gined some momentum in this area, we are lagging far behind our goals.  Without a critical mass of women, decisions will never be as diverse or practical as they would have been.  In the diplomatic community at the UN, for example, only four women in 60 years have been elected President of three of the five permanent organs: two in the General Assembly (Lakshmi Pandit (India) and Angie Brooks (Liberia)), one in the Economic and Social Council (Marjatta Razi, in 2005) and one, mentioned earlier, now heads the International Court of Justice. None have headed the Trusteeship Council. The Presidency of the Security Council is not elected but rotates on a monthly basis so unless a member happens to have a Permanent Representative who is a woman, this is not an option.  Nevertheless, women form Bangladesh, Denmark, Germany, Jamaica, Philippines and US are among those who presided. 

According to Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) figures, only 16.3% women are in the world’s combined houses of parliament.  At national and local level, women have benefited from the UN’s encouragement and by CEDAW’s Article 4 which authorizes special temporary measures until parity is reached.  Thus Morocco, Djibouti, Jordan, Niger, Uganda and France have all benefited under this provision by using quotas, earmarked seats or stipulating that a certain percentage of candidates on the party slate (50% in France’s case) has to be women.  

Within the UN Secretariat, a woman has held the position as Deputy Secretary-General for the last eight years, women head offices of human rights, HABITAT, and the regional commission of Western Asia.  In other UN bodies, women currently are Executive Directors of UNICEF, UNFPA, UNRWA, and have held positions as head of the world health, refugee and world food organizations and the regional commission of Europe.  No woman has ever been appointed to head a major substantive department at UN Headquarters other than administration and management and public information and only two currently head peace missions (Burundi, Georgia).  The challenge here is to encourage girls to study international affairs, languages and to ensure under CEDAW, that governments are monitored on the percentage of women ambassadors and diplomats they appoint.  Encouraging girls and women to learn to speak in public and stand for elections is another way in which women can participate in the governance of their countries.  Too often women are behind-the-scenes workers going for votes and funds for the principal candidate, a male.

Other challenges of a different nature which you should be thinking about include:

  • Changing stereotypical attitudes still limiting women’s roles,
  • Learning to work with and co-opt powerful men and boys as advocates of gender equality into campaigns
  • Finding implementation tools that work, and
  • Closing ranks between our sisters in the developing and industrialized countries.  With globalization such distinctions appear obsolete.  Nevertheless, olidarity with out sisters, whatever ethnic, religious or income background and with like-minded, articulate men and boys, is vital to the achievement of women’s fundamental rights and freedoms and to gender equality.  Also vital to our success is the cohesion of women  pulling together from ground up and top down, and from community to national and international levels.

In closing, I am confident that we will succeed as Anglican women, based on our collectively held belief in goodness, integrity and our sustaining system of faith and values.   Finally, building on the Commission’s decisions this session, and our own determination to translate Vision Into Action, we should make a commitment before we return home to initiate and carry through at least (a) one project to strengthen women’s access to or roles in the fields of health, education or employment or (b) one campaign to get women into positions of leadership and/or to eradicate violence against women and mitigate its effects.

Madam Convenor, ladies and gentlemen, I wish you a successful Orientation and a worthwhile fortnight of effective advocacy and lobbying.

We are our sisters’ keepers---until next year, may God bless you all.