Overview of Activities Related to Women
Since the Baha'i International Community obtained consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 1970, it has cooperated officially with the United Nations in its work to improve the status of women throughout the world. The Baha'i International Community has worked directly with the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and its Secretariat, the UN Division for the Advancement of Women. It has, in addition, established close, cooperative relationships with other international non-governmental organizations in status with the United Nations (UN) - which are seeking, through their activities, to promote the advancement of women.
At first, the Baha'i International Community contributed to the work of the UN by sharing information - submitting statements to UN bodies, in particular the Commission on the Status of Women, on various aspects of equality, including the education of girls, the importance of elevating the status of women as mothers, and the relevance of women's participation at local, national and international levels to the establishment of world peace. In 1974, the Baha'i International Community submitted to the United Nations, as a contribution to the preparations for International Women's Year (1975), a report of a Baha'i survey "Preliminary Inquiry Into the Status of Women in the Baha'i World Community." The study was based on replies received from 81 National Assemblies to a questionnaire sent out by Baha'i International Community in 1972. The results indicated varying degrees of awareness and understanding of the equality issue in Baha'i communities.
International Women's Year (1975)
During International Women's Year, the Baha'i International Community took part in all UN activities to which non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were invited, the most important being the first World Conference on Women, held in Mexico City, 19 June - 2 July, 1975. Eleven Baha'i women were appointed by the Universal House of Justice to represent the Baha'i International Community in Mexico. Two were accredited to attend the official UN Conference, and nine attended the Non-governmental Organizations (NGO) Tribune, which was held parallel to the official Conference for representatives of non-governmental organizations and other interested persons. An exhibit was arranged, and the Baha'i delegation held a reception for women and men attending the Tribune, as well as delegates attending the official Conference.
At the time, the Baha'i International Community was relatively new to the community of NGOs in consultative status with ECOSOC. Nevertheless, Baha'i International Community representatives were warmly welcomed at NGO meetings, joining with other NGOs in coordinating non-governmental participation in International Women's Year (IWY). Baha'i participation at the International Women's Year Conference in Mexico made a distinctly positive impression. The reception which was organized was especially well received. Many years later, NGO friends still expressed their appreciation for the calm atmosphere and warm hospitality they were offered in the midst of the bustle and confusion of the Conference activities.
UN Decade for Women (1976-1985)
Following International Women's Year, the United Nations Decade for Women (1976-1985) was established. During the Decade, the United Nations turned the world's attention to women's role in society. Data was collected on the problems that needed to be addressed in order to bring women as full participants into the life of society. A global awareness of these issues developed among governments and peoples. Baha'i perspectives on many of these issues were received with appreciation at numerous UN and NGO seminars, workshops and conferences.
Over the next ten years, the Baha'i International Community had opportunity to gain recognition for its work to promote the advancement of women. Baha'i International Community representatives served on NGO committees on the Status of Women in New York, Geneva and Vienna and attended the mid-decade and end of decade conferences, "World Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace," held in Copenhagen, Denmark, 14-30 July 1980, and the "World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace," held in Nairobi, Kenya, 15-26 July 1985. Baha'i International Community representatives also participated in regional meetings held in Cuba, Japan, Switzerland and Tanzania, in preparation for these World Conferences. They were involved as well in planning parallel activities for NGOs at these meetings and, in the process, established close working relations with NGO representatives of major international women's organizations - among them, the International Alliance of Women, the World Union of Catholic Women's Organizations, the International Federation of Business and Professional Women, the International Federation of University Women, Soroptimist International, World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, and Zonta International.
The Nairobi Conference (1985)
By 1985, the Baha'i International Community was generally included among the international NGOs known to have a major interest in and commitment to improving the status of women. For example, the Baha'i International Community played an important role in 1985 at the aforementioned United Nations "World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women." Nine Baha'is, women and men, were appointed by the Universal House of Justice to represent Baha'i International Community at Nairobi. Over fifty additional Baha'is attended the NGO Forum held parallel to the Conference, during which the Baha'i International Community sponsored a very successful workshop. In cooperation with the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Kenya, the Baha'i International Community arranged three receptions for conference and forum participants, as well as a distinctive exhibit and booth at the NGO Forum, where Baha'i materials were available to participants. Participation in the Conference and Forum in Nairobi marked a turning point in the emergence of the Baha'i International Community internationally in the arena of women's affairs.
Further, as a contribution to the preparations of the United Nations for the Nairobi Conference, the Baha'i International Community undertook, in 1984, a second survey of the Baha'i world community. The survey reviewed the progress made by Baha'i communities throughout the world in promoting the equality principle during the Decade. It was clear from the response that Baha'i communities, with guidance from their Institutions, were developing a much broader understanding of the spiritual dimensions of the principle of equality and were taking action in a variety of ways to promote the development of Baha'i women and to change attitudes in Baha'i communities and in society at large. The survey was compiled into a report and submitted to the United Nations, to be included in the permanent record of the Conference.
Strengthening Cooperation with the UN
Since 1985, the Baha'i International Community has continued to expand its involvement in United Nations efforts to promote the advancement of women. The strong, friendly relations already established with the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, based in Vienna, have been strengthened; a Baha'i International Community representative in New York is serving as chairperson of the New York based NGO Committee on the Status of Women; and the Baha'i International Community representatives in Geneva and Vienna have served in the past as officers of their respective NGO committees on the Status of Women, and continue to be actively involved in their activities. The Baha'i International Community is represented by a delegation of Baha'i women and men at the annual session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. At the Commission, statements are presented on the priority themes on the Commission's agenda, and the Baha'i global network of cooperation with government delegates and representatives of international NGOs is further developed. Many invitations to take part in a variety of meetings related to the advancement of women come from the United Nations and from non-governmental organizations. These meetings offer opportunity for an increasing number of Baha'is with expertise to take part in the discussions.
In April, 1990, a briefing - the first of its kind - was held to acquaint representatives of sixteen National Spiritual Assemblies in Europe with the Baha'i International Community's work at the United Nations in the area of women's affairs. Members of the Continental Board of Counsellors for Europe also took part in the consultation. The meeting provided opportunity to exchange information and views on Baha'i involvement with the United Nations in the area of women's affairs. Bonds of cooperation and friendship were strengthened between the Baha'i International Community, the Counsellors and the National Spiritual Assemblies in Europe, paving the way for future cooperation.
The newly established Baha'i International Community Office for the Pacific Region in Suva, Fiji, has a strong focus on women's activities. Its relationship with the South Pacific Commission has been enhanced through its involvement in women's affairs. The Pacific Women's Resource Bureau of the South Pacific Commission turns frequently to the Baha'i International Community for consultation. With the opening of an office in Fiji, opportunities for joint activities to improve conditions for women are increasing, not only with the South Pacific Commission but with United Nations agencies, such as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF); the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM); the United Nations Development Program (UNDP); and the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA).
The same potential for cooperation with UN agencies exists in other regions. The Baha'i International Community has established representations to the following United Nations Regional Commissions: the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), in Santiago, Chile; the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and the Economic and Social Council for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), in Bangkok, Thailand.
In the United States, Baha'i International Community representatives meet as regularly as possible with representatives of the United States Baha'i Office of External Affairs, including the United States Baha'i Representative to the United Nations, to review activities of mutual interest and to promote communication and cooperation. For example, information received at the Baha'i International Community in New York, then shared with the United States National Spiritual Assembly, led to high profile participation by American Baha'is in a Sino-American Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1990. The Baha'i International Community also cooperates with the National Committee on Women in its work as a member organization of the US National Council of Women. A Baha'i International Community representative served as Vice Chairperson of the US Council from 1989-1991, and recently this representative was elected Vice Convenor of the International Council of Women's Standing Committee on International Relations and Peace.
Office of the Advancement of Women
On 10 December, 1992, the Universal House of Justice announce to the Baha'i world its decision to establish an Office for the Advancement of Women. As an agency of the Baha'i International Community, the Office will promote the principles of the Faith through its interaction with international organizations concerned with matters affecting the rights, status and well-being of women. It will also advise National Spiritual Assemblies regarding programs and projects in which the involvement of the community can encourage efforts towards the realization of the equality of men and women.
Some Current Activities
Fourth World Conference on Women: Action for Equality, Development and Peace - 4-15 September 1995 - Beijing, China
The Office for the Advancement of Women is actively involved in preparations for the Conference. The Director coordinates Baha'i International Community participation in these preparatory activities throughout the world. As Chairperson of the Non-governmental Organizations (NGO) Committee on the Status of Women in New York, the Director, who is also a United Nations representative, serves as a member of the global NGO Steering Committee. The Steering Committee is planning the NGO activities to be held at the time of the '95 Conference, including the NGO Forum '95. In Europe, a male Baha'i International Community representative serves as Convenor of the NGO Working Group, which is planning conference related activities for the Geneva-based NGO Committee on the Status of Women. Another Geneva representative is helping to plan the participation of NGOs in the European Regional Preparatory Conference to be held by the UN Economic Commission for Europe in 1994. Community representatives are also actively involved in the planning process for NGO participation in Preparatory Conferences to be held in 1994 by other United Nations Regional Commissions - in Bangkok, Thailand; in Santiago, Chile; and in Addis, Ababa, Ethiopia.
Baha'i International Community continues to cooperate with the United Nations in its ongoing work to improve the status of women throughout the world - following the annual session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women; presenting oral and written statements to the Commission on the priority themes of equality, development and peace; participating in special UN seminars and conferences; and answering requests for information received from the UN Division for the Advancement of Women. It will continue as well to present to the United Nations from time to time, information evidencing the steady implementation of the principle of the equality of the sexes in the Baha'i world.
A Baha'i International Community communication project, "Traditional Media As Change Agent," funded by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), is promoting change in attitudes towards women in three countries - Bolivia in Latin America, Cameroon in West Africa, and Malaysia in Asia. The project tests the validity of using traditional media to educate the community about the need to improve the status of women and to help establish priorities for community action.
Advocates for African Food Security
The Baha'i International Community is Convenor of "Advocates for African Food Security: lessening the burden for women," a coalition of NGOs, United Nations Agencies and Intergovernmental Organizations. The Advocates have been promoting awareness of and respect for the key role of women farmers in establishing food security for Africa. Actions by international agencies, governments and NGOs to improve conditions for women food farmers are encouraged and supported.
The Baha'i International Community coordinates the activities of the Advocates, including annual symposiums, preparation of statements to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and production of materials. The Advocates produced a video with a study guide, entitled "A Day in the Life of an African Woman Farmer." In addition, they prepared and published a survey on African food security and final reports of the Advocates' annual symposia. All publications receive wide distribution in United Nations and government circles and amongst NGOs and interested individuals in the development field.
International Year of the Family (1994)
The United Nations has proclaimed 1994 the International Year of the Family. With wholehearted support for the spirit and the goals of the Year, the Baha'i International Community is participating in preparatory activities for the Year. A Representative has chaired the New York NGO Committee on the Family. Representatives in Geneva and Vienna serve on their respective NGO committees on the family. Selections from the Baha'i writings on the family have been shared widely, and Baha'i perspectives have been presented at a number of conferences and consultations held by the United Nations and by NGOs in preparation for the Year. Planning is underway for symposia to be held in New York and Geneva in 1994 on "A Violence Free Family."
The Baha'i International Community has been, from its inception, an advocate for the advancement of women. In addition to the steady contribution of Baha'i communities in abolishing discrimination based on sex, the Office for the Advancement of Women will continue to support programmes and activities initiated by the United Nations to eliminate discrimination and bring women into full partnership with men in all aspects of our global society.