Commission on the Status of Women Reflection - Kate Hellings
3 May 2021
“It is not enough to have a few women in power; we must have more.” Secretary-General António Guterres words have stayed in my mind since attending the 65th Conference on the Status of Women. As a woman wishing to ingratiate herself in the Foreign Affairs field I cannot think of a more fantastic opportunity to learn and hone my own understanding on Foreign Affairs and the importance of female leadership and empowerment, than attending a UN Conference on the Status of Women. I feel privileged to attend, but most of all, motivated to create change.
One of the key lessons, and themes of the Conference, for me, was the question of where to go next? The side and main events at the conference touched upon this very point. In some countries the suffragette movement had created significant ground, but what about those nations who felt that their voices were not being listened to? What about those nations that had religious, or cultural elements to think about when it comes to female empowerment? This was precisely the point. Every nation state had embarked on their own journey; and women within those countries have their own opinions and experiences on what the best solution forward is. In this, I learnt the art of negotiation being key; but more integrally so was the art of listening.
I never knew quite how much work goes into the negotiation aspect of the conference “behind the scenes.” Representatives worked tirelessly to negotiate and promote their resolutions and I became quite invested in the updates that the New Zealand team provided- with a notable aspect of pride and patriotism towards the work New Zealand does to promote gender equality. However, the same barriers continued to plague progress- what to do when cohesion was at a minimum.
How can cohesion be made where there are so may factors that divide the experience of women in different corners of the globe? Perhaps this is a naïve view but a key tool to create cohesion and policy change so that women can participate and lead in society is changing this focus in division to one of unity. In the introductory conference session this idea was touched upon. Many nation states had the shared experience of, “we’ve made so much progress; now how do we take it that step further?” And some states, like New Zealand were trying to address this dilemma with notions of paid parental leave and educational initiatives. But for me, like many others, as the barriers to education dwindle, and as more women enter the workforce, it is now a societal question of how to get these educated women into meaningful positions in leadership. A discussion that has been had for many years, that unfortunately will continue for many to come. Initiatives need to be made to normalise female leadership.
Finally, and this was something I didn’t think of, was the importance of language. This was a reoccurring theme throughout the conference for me that I never expected to be of such huge concern. In a side event I attended (this on the Status of Immigrant Women), the importance of language and the connotations that words have, were considered key to changing the narrative around immigrant women. The same can be said about the status of women in general.
In other words, it is critical now to examine the language we use when it comes to female empowerment. It is critical to ensure the language we use emphasises positive change, rather than tokenistic and superficial change. Finally, it is critical for indigenous and minority women that words and concepts are used in their language to ensure the empowerment of women across all groups in society- if we are to move forward, we must ensure no woman should be left behind.