BIC engages with the UN Commission on the Status of Women

BIC engages with the UN Commission on the Status of Women

Bani Dugal of the BIC, fourth from left, at an event at the Canadian UN Mission during the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
United Nations—27 March 2017

The Baha'i International Community sought to make substantive contributions to the global discourse on gender equality during the UN Commission on the Status of Women this year.

Through a statement to the Commission, as well as participation in a number of events during the meeting, the BIC offered its experience as a world faith community devoted to the ideal of equality between women and men.

Held 13-24 March 2017, the Commission is the single largest forum for UN Member States and other international actors with a focus on women’s rights and empowerment. Every year it attracts thousands of participants from around the world, and this year an estimated 9,000 people registered for the meeting.

The theme at this year’s Commission was “Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work,” and the BIC sought to address this topic in a variety of ways, said Saphira Rameshfar, a representative of the BIC to the UN.

“The discussions at the UN raised fundamental questions about how the situation of millions of women around the world – economic, social, and otherwise – can best be improved,” said Ms. Rameshfar.

“Our view is that economic empowerment cannot be equated with women simply occupying the same positions as men within the existing social order – an order that has generated tremendous disparities of wealth and resources, treated the natural environment as a reservoir of resources to be exploited at will, and prioritized economic growth over other vital concerns such as the health of families, the stability of communities, and indeed the psychological and emotional well-being of workers themselves,” she said.

Ms. Rameshfar noted that, in addition to staff representatives of the BIC like herself, ten Baha’is from six countries – Australia, Canada, Namibia, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the USA – attended the Commission as delegates in an effort to share the viewpoints and experience of Baha'i communities at the CSW.

“Contributions were made to the discourse in a range of sub-themes addressed by the Commission, including issues concerning indigenous and rural women, gender based violence, the role of men and boys, youth and young women, the role of faith communities, family and the care economy, migration and refugees,” said Ms. Rameshfar.

As part of this endeavor, Baha'i representatives participated in or co-sponsored a number of events during the Commission. These included:

■ Extensive participation in the Commission’s Youth Forum, held 11-12 March, which convened more than 700 young people from around the world. The BIC, for example, sponsored a workshop at the Forum on the relationship between faith and feminism. At that workshop, BIC collaborator Eric Farr of Canada suggested that one way faith communities can contribute to gender equity is by adopting a systematic process of learning.

“We actually don’t know what a society that’s truly based on principles of gender equality looks like; such a society has never existed,” said Mr. Farr. “So the project of gender equality, in this light, becomes understood as an urgently needed learning process. What we need is to develop a new body of knowledge that draws on the insights of humanity’s great systems of knowledge, religion and science.”

The BIC followed up on that workshop with a side event, held at the BIC Offices on 15 March, which sought to draw together a small group of interested young people to more deeply explore such themes, to further explore how religion as a system of knowledge can advance society.

■ The launch of a “Gender Equality and Religion Platform” in relation to Agenda 2030, held at the Permanent Mission of Canada to the UN on 15 March 2017. The platform aims to bring together representatives of intergovernmental, governmental, faith-based, and civil society organizations, religious leaders, theologians, academics, and development and gender equality experts with the goal of  advocating for and identifying strategies for the gender responsive implementation of Agenda 2030, the UN’s recently adopted global development plan.

Bani Dugal, the Principal Representative of the BIC to the UN, was invited to speak at the launch, and her remarks focused on the emphasis on human oneness and gender equality in the Baha'i sacred writings.

“The Baha'i Faith explicitly states that the equality of women and men is not merely desired but an eternal spiritual truth,” said Ms. Dugal,” who was joined on a panel along with representatives of Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. “Baha’u’llah said ‘Women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God.

“We often hear much about how discrimination affects half of the population,” she continued. “But I’d like to offer that it actually impacts men as much as women.” She noted that the Baha'i writings state that as long as women are prevented from attaining equality, men will be unable to achieve “the greatness which might be theirs.”

■  A session of the Faith and Feminism Working Group to the United Nations, focused on strategic collaboration, held at the offices of the BIC on 15 March 2017. The session featured remarks by Karima Bennoune, the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, who spoke about the rise of fundamentalist and extremist thought – and how that affects women’s rights.

 “There are common themes across fundamentalist and extremist abuses of cultural rights,” she said, reading from her recent report to the UN Human Rights Council, and then adding: “And these themes are clearly important in the world of women.”

Such abuses, she said, “often involve attempts at cultural engineering aimed at redesigning culture based on monolithic world views, focused on ‘purity’ and enmity toward ‘the other,’ policing ‘honor’ and ‘modesty.’”

They also include claiming cultural and moral superiority, imposing a claimed “true religion” or “authentic culture” along with dress and behavior codes often alien to the lived cultures of local populations, stifling freedom of artistic expression and curtailing scientific freedom, said Dr. Benounne.

Members of the Faith and Feminism Working Group and other participants then engaged in a vigorous conversation about the need to find new narratives to counter the ideologies that drive religious and cultural fundamentalism.

■ A discussion, sponsored by the BIC, on the theme: “Toward Prosperity: The Role of Women and Men in Building a Flourishing World Civilization.” The event was tied to the BIC’s statement to the Commission, which has the same title, and it began by with three panelists offering reflections on three themes from the statement as they relate to gender equality: the economic structure of society, the role of the family, and the period of youth.

The panelists were Augusto Lopez Claros, Director, Global Indicators Group, Development Economics, World Bank Group; Azza Karam, Senior Advisor, Multilateral Affairs Branch, UN Population Fund (UNFPA); and Laxman Belbase, Global Networks Manager of the Men Engage Alliance.

Dr. Claros said studies by the World Bank have shown significant links between the increase in national-level laws against domestic violence and an increase in life expectancy for women.

“Today, 127 countries have laws protecting women against domestic violence,” said Dr. Claros. “In 1990, there were only a handful of countries with such laws.”

When the bank then correlated the relative rates of violence against women with that data, it found that “tens of millions died because they lived in countries where there was no such legislation.”

Dr. Karam talked about the importance of the economic empowerment of women, and the role religion plays in establishing cultural norms for that. She also talked about efforts to bridge the divide between secular and religious groups over women’s rights, who sometimes disagree over issues like reproductive rights.

“People think this area is just a small domain of the global conversation about human rights,” said Dr. Karam. “But it is essential to realizing the sustainable development goals.

Mr. Belbase noted that young people today are much more accepting of diversity, which creates new opportunities for empowerment. “The question is how do we build on this acceptance of diverse viewpoints so that we can have prosperous families and individual lives?” he said.

■ At a town hall meeting between women’s organizations and the new UN Secretary General, António Guterres, Ms. Dugal offered a recommendation to Mr. Guterres, asking that he appoint a high level liaison for civil society.

“We need your leadership in order to facilitate access for all civil society [representatives] especially human rights, feminist, and women’s rights groups,” she said.

At the same meeting, Ms. Rameshfar presented, on behalf of the 900 NGOs present, a letter to Mr. Guterres acknowledging his leadership in promoting gender equality and asking him to continue that work “so that feminist and women’s movements can continue to have a strong, multi-cultural voice at the United Nations.”

■ The screening of a film, Mercy’s Blessing, on 17 March 2017 at the offices of the BIC. Inspired by true events, the film examines issues of child marriage, the education of the girl child, and gender equality in Malawi, as seen through the eyes of a teenage boy who hopes to raise his younger sister and himself out of poverty. The UN Mission of Malawi co-sponsored the screening.

The film’s director, May Taherzadeh, was present, as were a number of officials from Malawi, including Madame Callista Mutharika, the former First Lady of the Republic of Malawi and Presidential Adviser on Safe Motherhood; the Honourable Dr. Jessie Kabwila, M.P., Chair of Women's Caucus in the Malawi National Assembly; and Ms. Clara M. Anyangwe, the Country Representative in Malawi for UN Women.