My first UNCSW experience

By: Naureen Rizvi, Unifor, Canadian Trade Union Delegation

This was my first UN experience. The experience is entirely one that you cannot prepare for.  With over 8,600 women registered here – you find a friend standing next to you at every traffic light you stop at around the city, you find yourself among other women from around the world in the smallest of restaurants, all identifiable by a similar blue badge on a lanyard with the label “UNCSW 61” standing out so proudly.  The 61st session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women - instantly you feel connected to the decades of history -and the countless women who must have crossed this street light before me, on their way to the big UN building on 1st Avenue – to raise their voices together towards equality for women and girls.  It is an overwhelming feeling of wanting to be part of the continued fight, of cheering and applauding the wins.  And the city doesn’t feel unfamiliar - we have all been here before - in person, in spirit, in struggles, in the victories, in sisterhood.

Day 1 – how better to start the fight for women’s rights at this 61st session then by having our first high level government meeting with Minister Patty Hajdu at the Permanent Mission to Canada to speak on pay equity, gender based violence, harassment, the gender wage gap, work integrated learning, and good quality jobs.  Our CLC union delegation provided valuable insight on pay equity laws in Quebec with insight on a framework that is already functioning – women have waited far too long for equal pay for work of equal value.  The Union sisters were a force to reckon with at the round table discussion (yes, 30 of us went!).  Insight on past experiences, current issues, warnings of areas untested, we brought the Canadian women worker struggle to the table in a highly effective way.  Unions are good for women; wages are $7.00 higher on average, and they provide a mechanism to enforce rights when dealing with workplace harassment, apprenticeships to integrate more women into underrepresented jobs - a solid step for good quality jobs.  Union sisters provided concrete examples of solutions for each problem, and we offered our assistance to speed up the processes and requested for a follow-up to ensure that the focus never shifts.  Isn’t that what we do best?!

A quick run from 48th and 2nd to the UN Building on 47th and 1st. “Gender Equality the Nordic Way” – this should be good, I think! Get out the notebook and take a ton of notes, hoping they will speak of strategies used to pass progressive social policies and not just the social policies themselves! As we fly through an overcrowded 1st floor, a wall with a quote catches my eye.

One child,

one teacher,

one book,

and one pen

can change the world

- Malala Yousafzai

United Nations Youth Assembly, 12 July 2013

I stop and take a picture of these words written in black on a white wall. They thought she wouldn’t survive, and this young girl, a warrior in her own rights, survived and is now championing education for all girls. Malala’s words permeate the walls of the UN building - they have found a natural home here.

True, so true, I think to myself as I push through to find a place to stand in conference room 7, waiting for the session to start. 

In Norway, 92% of 4 year olds are in daycare and 72% of women work.  Birth Control, access to safe abortion, universal childcare, health care and education all contribute to a greater number of women in the labour market.  A minister from Sweden shared the notion that policies and laws change the mentality on gender equality and that is as important as changing the numbers.  This notion was bolstered through fundamental research presented by a speaker from Denmark.  The key takeaway from this research is that Unconscious Gender Bias is exactly that - it’s unconscious and requires a physical effort to overcome! Although much work remains to be done, the successful passing of laws on corporate quotas has increased the presence of women on boards in Nordic countries from 5% to 40%.  Despite this documented success Nordic women still face challenges to attain CEO positions. It is remarkable that even though women’s involvement has increased, their equality is still a step behind.

Exhausted and stimulated by the incredible push and pull that you feel by all involved – we moved on to a side event at a little Church about 14 blocks away.  This was where the heart filled up with the feeling of pain and fear listening to an incredible panel of Indigenous women recounting their time in a Residential School System.  One of the panel members was just 5 years old when she was taken from her family and placed in this school.  She was 20 when she returned to her community.  I think of my own two children – they are at the tender ages of 6 and 7.  How do children so young survive the lack of love and the fear that must overwhelm them?  How did humanity go so wrong? Support for transitioning Indigenous women from reserves to urban centers is critical in preventing them from falling prey to violence.  I had the privilege of listening to Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson – a women so humble and so full of wisdom – her voice so calm, yet strong and focused and a voice well known for her work on bringing forth the National Inquiry on more than 1,200 missing and murdered Aboriginal women. I admire the sheer will of these women to change the fate of current and future Aboriginal and Indigenous women and girls in light of the atrocities they have endured.

I am grateful to be here.  And on my walk back to the hotel, I recommit to the many ways the amazing women that have come here are reaching out to make change.  I am with them.


Naureen Rizvi

Ontario Regional Director - Unifor


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