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MU @ UNCSW June Butler Blog: Day Three

At the midpoint of their week in New York, MU trustee June Butler reports from her third - rather long day- at the UN Commission on the Status of Women. 

15 Mar 2019

When I began to think about the ground I had covered, both physically and mentally, on the third day of UNCSW63, I thought I would check the movement “app” on my phone and found I had walked over 15,000 steps! You can definitely say that Mothers’ Union has many attributes including the promotion of physical well-being!

However, we began Day Three, Wednesday, with healthy sustenance – early breakfast at the UN European Union offices where senior personnel from five EU countries began the session by reporting on how their member states ensured compliance with gender equality legislation. The range of matters was impressive and wide, from sexual health initiatives, through to pensions, gender budgeting, environment, to the prevalent theme of this UNCSW – ways of combatting violence against women at home and in the workplace.

Mary and I went together to the next session as it is something we both feel passionate about - widows: their role in society, their needs and how they are discriminated against in many cultures and countries. This side event was organised by The Global Fund for Widows, promoting its “Make Widows Matter” campaign and focussing on the by-line for the session “What happens to me when they take everything?” A stirring introductory speech was given by their advocate,  Lord Ahmed of Wimbledon, and he spoke not only about how the widows in his own family had been affected psychologically by their husbands’ death but also about how, in his culture and many others worldwide, the circumstances surrounding widowhood were simply horrific. 

He and others referred to economic deprivation, outright poverty, theft of property and belongings, burial customs and open discrimination. Then there were the horrors faced by younger widows, of which I had known very little - sexual rituals to “cleanse” young widows, prejudice against the children of young widows, them often being forced into prostitution , their frequent sexual exploitation in the extended family and the consequences in terms of HIV Aids.  Also there was considerable discussion about “half widows” those who do not know if their husbands have survived a war situation, how they are left in limbo and what can happen to them – some dreadful stories were told. 

There were also some glimmers of hope, such as legislation in certain countries to try to prevent the marriage of young girls, in Namibia which has just passed a Married Persons Equality Act, and the new prevailing desire on the part of many counties to do something positive about the many challenges and traditions surrounding widowhood. There are several organisation advocating on their behalf and I firmly believe Mothers’ Union should also join their ranks. As one lady said, widowhood should start long before you become a widow, in terms of preparation and knowledge and our organisation is in the position to inform and educate members, as well as advocacy against some of the dreadful consequences in some parts of the world.

I attended three side events that afternoon, all of which for me were incisive and informative. Firstly there was the “Gender Budgeting: Re-shaping resources in support of equality goals” where delegates from Ireland and Uganda spoke about their progress in this field. I learned a lot about what was happening in the island where I live - how the Irish government now used a gender mainstreaming approach to budgeting, having adopted an national strategy for women and girls in 2017. It was acknowledged that, while they partnered with Uganda in a bilateral aid programme, the latter country was ahead in terms of success in implementation and we heard the detail of that work, largely based on education, political commitment, willing collaboration and established performance indicators against which success could be measured.

The next session was hosted by the Justina Mutale Foundation and the lady herself introduced the topic “Migrant Women and Girls in Crisis”. She and the other speakers - an actress, a journalist, several from women’s organisations across the globe, told us stories of women and girls  in refugee camps – the conditions, the loss of identity and their mistreatment. One speaker – Larissa Miller from Pheonix Global, USA simply said we who were well-intentioned should stop sending clothes and food to refugees – we should instead “give them the stepping stones to find their way out”. The women in those camps were resourceful and needed tools, cooking implements, seeds, sewing machines – those on the outside needed to empower them! She also said something that will resonate with me for a long time – even if we make a real impact on only one life in our own lifetime, that impact can have such repercussions for humankind; for example, if we support a child through education in a developing country, that child can perhaps become a doctor and save the lives of many. 

A member of staff from the Human Rights Commission for Northern Ireland was among the panellists for the next session I attended, entitled “Women’s Access to Services in times of Political Uncertainty”. I found the input from her and the other speakers very interesting and I learned a lot about the current difficulties in my own country which has been without functioning devolved government for well over two years. I also heard stories from those who had such experiences in Iraq, Pakistan, Rwanda and Syria – some dreadful consequences of political instability were shared.
For me the highlight of the event was the input by Margaret Owen, a retired barrister and law lecturer who spoke about her involvement over nearly thirty years with “Widows for Peace through Democracy”. Again, she about the plight of widows who were subjected to the norms of cultures so different from our own; however she also gave information about the poverty and isolation of many widows in the “developed” counties of the northern hemisphere. I spoke towards the end of the session, pointing out that Mothers’ Union had over 4 million members across 83 countries worldwide and we, as a faith based and caring organisation, have a special resource in our members; we should be trying to partner with those already providing support to widows worldwide to try to alleviate their hardship and loneliness.  

To end the day I walked back to the UN building to attend a “Step It Up” event (no pun intended in terms of my step counting for the day!) in one of the main auditoriums. It was organised by UNAIDS to put a spotlight on the needs and demands of girls and young women who are marginalised; living in poverty, with HIV, disabilities, survivors of gender based violence, migrants, sex workers, drug users, young widows etc. I found all the stories from the panel quite hard to listen too but there was one ray of hope emanating from Trinidad and Tobago. They had put in place a six month long programme in the curriculum for all girls where, through class work, drama and art, they learned about sexual reproductive health, bullying, life skills, awareness of domestic violence and mental health. What a wonderful initiative and my questions to myself were why was this not also extended to boys and why are all countries not doing something similar?  Our gender-related issues will only begin to reduce if we educate ALL our children in the correct way of living together.

That was a very long day -I attended seven events over 13 hours - but the benefits of being at UNCSW, listening, learning and being forced to address mentally concerns of which you previously have no or little knowledge,  are just immeasurable.