By Kyle Reeve, the University of South Australia
Monday March 13th saw the opening day of the 61st Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. After obtaining our official UN passes, our delegation made the short walk through the cold, bustling streets of Manhattan to the United Nations building. Walking into the foyer of the main building, it was easy to get caught up in the rush of the crowds, filled with people from all over the world, arriving to contribute to this eminent forum. It wasn’t until we were stopped by our team leader Elizabeth, and told to take pause and appreciate exactly where we were: among some of the greatest minds in the world at the historic UN building where some of the most important global negotiations have and are yet to take place.
The day kicked off with a plenary session in the General Assembly, where ministers from all of the world’s nations met to open the event and give their statements. Chaired by H. E. Mr. Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, the session included keynote speeches from the UN Secretary General António Guterres and the UN Under Secretary General and Executive Director of UN Women, Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.
With this, the CSW began. We raced around attending the many side events hosted by various government representatives and NGOs. With so many events held simultaneously in and around the UN building, the hardest part of this conference seems to be trying to decide which ones to choose! The side events are vastly different to the official meetings. The official meetings are generally larger meetings that take place between many government ministers, in which each minister reads a written statement about that meetings topic. Conversely, the side events can be lectures, panel discussions or even Q&A sessions.
Today, as we had many other events and meetings to attend, I only had time to see one side event. That side event was “Addressing the Gender Dimension of Modern Day Slavery,” hosted by the United Kingdom, including a panel discussion of six experts in the area of modern day slavery, who took questions from the audience at the end of the talk. The most interesting of the speakers was by the chief executive director of Anti-Slavery International, Mr Aidan McQuade. Mr McQuade discussed the fact that one of the most difficult aspects of fighting modern day slavery, in which there are an estimated 121 millions slaves worldwide, is that a majority of slavery occurs legally, despite the myth that slavery is illegal. Mr McQuade gave the examples of child marriage, which is legal in many countries, but is not considered or thought of as slavery simply as it is not referred to as such, and also migrant domestic workers, who travel to another country to find work as a domestic worker or carer, and once there, are exploited. Mr McQuade referred to this as a socially permissible system of slavery.
Later I attended a Ministerial Roundtable, in which ministers from countries all over the world met to discuss how each country is progressing in closing the gender pay gap. As opposed to the side events, which were a more open, free-flowing discussion of issues, these ministerial events were much more rigid and structured, and consisted of a pre-written speech given by each country on their respective efforts to bridge the gap between men’s and women’s wages. Over 30 countries spoke, each providing an overview of their efforts. These included France’s efforts to address unpaid care work, Norway introducing new laws to protect women from pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, and Brazil’s difficulty in providing protection to domestic workers and carers.
At 430pm we left the UN to have a meeting with the three CSO members of the official Australian delegation to the CSW: Jahna Cedar, Executive Officer at Gumala Aboriginal Corporation; LeAnn Wilson, Executive Director of ACTE; and Elizabeth Shaw, President of UN Women. The day concluded with an official DFAT briefing with the entire Australian delegation, an opportunity to touch base and recap on the day and hear updates for the week.
And then main update… Throughout the entire day, the news channels of New York had been talking about the ‘historic blizzard’ that was on its way to the city. As the day progressed, the talks of the blizzard hitting, and its strength, intensified. Finally, at the end of the day, it was announced that the United Nations, together with much of the city, including its schools and transport, would be closed on Tuesday. While the ministerial meetings will be moved to another day, many of the side events will be simply cancelled, as there is no room to fit them into an already busy schedule. This is very disappointing to miss out on one of the few days at the United Nations that we are here for. Saying that, a day in a blizzard in New York adds to the list of mind-blowing experiences that we have had here, and it will only be our second day!