Reflections from UNCSW Day 1: The Women are lifting up the World

Unifor sisters attending CSW61 visit "Fearless Girl"

By: Lana Payne, Atlantic Unifor Director


On Monday I stepped inside the United Nations in New York for the first time as part of the global trade union delegation attending the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

There are 1,000s of women here from across the globe – a mighty force pushing for gender equality, demanding their governments do more to support full equality for women, to close the gender gap which is still large and pervasive. Indeed the UNCSW has a campaign entitled #StoptheRobbery in an effort to bring more attention to the importance of equal pay is to women’s equality, but also to the global economy. Can’t believe we still have to say this in 2017.

It is a profoundly poignant experience to consider the many, many conversations and wrangling that have taken place within the walls of the UN in an effort to advance human rights; if these walls could talk. This week those walls can’t contain the many powerful voices of women.

The work of the UNCSW is particularly humbling when you consider the severe challenges faced by women in the developing world and yet their fighting spirit is a shining example to all of us. If they can resist, if they can find hope, if they can overcome, then we must be just as vigilant.

You are reminded of this spirit immediately upon entering the UN with the stunning photographic display of women. Women in refugee camps learning new skills so they can provide a better life for their children; women who have survived decades of war and lost children and whose faces weather that heartache, but still find comfort in their friendships with each other; women empowered to fight the Ebola epidemic; women working with women.

It became so clear, standing amid these images with sunlight flooding through the massive windows overlooking the East River that women are indeed holding the world up and yet their equality is still an unrealized dream and for some a very distant dream.

But of course women in Canada – Indigenous women, immigrant women, women of colour, and women with disabilities – also face profound barriers to equality. Indeed for Indigenous sisters their path to equality is perhaps among the most precarious.

At one of the UNCSW side events, tucked away in a church basement on 35th Street, the inspirational Indigenous leader Sheila North Wilson, Grand Chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKAO), joined with other Manitoban Indigenous leaders to explain the challenges faced by girls and women moving to urban centres from their Reserves and what’s required to combat the deeply-seated and too-often life-threatening racism and sexism they face.

It was a powerful panel of Indigenous women leaders, who are very much leading the change for their Indigenous sisters, and who through their very example show just how much better our country would be if Indigenous girls had the same opportunities and choices.

Grand Chief North Wilson, an award winning journalist (and former Unifor member), has used her powerful voice to advocate for an inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Canada. And this week she took her message of the need enhance the political will to address the racism and violence against Indigenous people in Canada to the UN.

Earlier in the day, I took in the session with Nordic political leaders and academics. It was a striking contrast to the Indigenous session.

Entitled the Nordic Way, we heard about how the Nordic countries are working to further advance women’s equality. This is true even though they are the highest on the equality index.

But as Demark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland pointed out even in their countries women do not have full equality, therefore there is work to be done. It was the sincere commitment to that work that had everyone in the room applauding.

As the minister from Iceland explained “we have no one to follow, so we must lead the way.” In time for International Women’s Day this year, Iceland announced that from here on out Icelandic corporations will have to prove they are living up to newly developed equal pay standards.

It was extraordinary to see countries almost competing with each other to solve the gender inequality paradox. This kind of intense competition I can applaud.

Their work to achieve full equality is a shining example to the rest of the world that this can be done with political will, a strong commitment, an action plan and government working as the catalyst.

As we walked from one session to another, my CUPE sister, Yasmeen Mirzi, talked about the challenges Muslim women face in our country. She told me of her efforts to reach out to her broader community, her work colleagues, in order to dislodge stereotypes.

By the end of the day, I was reflecting on my conversation with Rachel from Atlanta, Georgia who works for an NGO dedicated to peacebuilding solutions. We met in the security line. We talked politics, of course.

She was worried about the impact the Trump presidency will have on women’s equality, on reproductive choice.

But her tone was not worn-down or hopeless. Indeed the opposite as we spoke of the powerful resistance forming throughout the U.S. 

When you consider that many of the advances made by U.S. women are now under threat, it is a staggering reminder just how fragile women’s equality gains truly are.

The stark truth is none of us have equality until all women enjoy it because as long as some women are held back, there is space to chip away at those all-too fragile gains.

In sisterhood from the UNCSW

Lana Payne

Atlantic Unifor Director






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