So, I woke up this morning at 4am to catch the train to London, to catch the Tube, to catch a flight to New York. I have made this same trip at this time of year pretty much every year since 1995. It’s not to see the sights, take in a show or two, or even to visit friends. It is to go the meeting of the Commission on the Status Women, one of the most important, and oldest, agencies of the United Nations. Made up of governments, or States Parties, as they are known at the UN, CSW meets annually in New York to discuss the progress of women in every country and to set out the work plan for their advancement in the coming year.
Over time this meeting has become the focal point for women and civil society, with increasing numbers every year. This year, over 11,000 individuals, mostly women, representing some 8,000 civil society organisations, registered for the conference. It is a year of significance: the 25th anniversary of the Fourth UN Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995. At that event, which drew some 30,000 women (and not a few men) from across the globe, the governments concluded the Beijing Platform for Action, setting out goals for the equality, advancement, empowerment and liberation from the shackles of harmful traditional practices of all women and girls. This year is a year of celebration and looking forward.
Except it is not.
The coronavirus Covid-19 has appeared. With less than a week to go, the two-week meeting of the CSW was truncated to a one-day political gathering of government missions to the UN already in New York; all events by governments, civil society and others were cancelled, UN passes have been rescinded. So there is nothing to go to, no one to meet, no celebration.
Or is there?
I was privileged to be at the Beijing Conference on Women. The worldwide Bahá'í community accredited some 500 Bahá'ís -- about 250 women and 250 men -- from communities on every continent to attend -- to offer insights from the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh and the Faith's decades-long experience on the equality and advancement of women and girls, and the role of men and boys in promoting, fostering and supporting them. But we also attended to listen and learn from the global experience of women whose lives were a testament to their ingenuity in overcoming obstacles to education, health and participation; who carefully crafted meaningful work from the often meagre resources available to them; who created opportunities for their girls to learn to read and write and to progress. We can still celebrate these achievements, and those that have occurred since.
Does this mean that our work is done? Not at all. Women and girls still suffer violence and abuse, they are trafficked to provide pleasure or forced labour (the event I was hosting this year, as a member of Ethical Business Building the Future ebbf.org, was Stop the Traffic! The role of business in halting trafficking). Girls are still unable to attend school in many places because they lack safe access to toilets, have walk miles to collect water, which may be dirty, are married as children to men many years older than themselves. Widows -- some of whom may be girls of 10 or younger -- often have the worst deal, being rejected from their communities and losing everything as well as their husbands.
Let’s not think that because CSW has been cancelled, we don’t have the space to celebrate the progress we have made, and remember the work still to do. In fact, there is much to celebrate, like those who are working collaboratively with thousands of others to make progress happen, women who are continuing to work to bring about their own advancement, men who promote the equality of women and men. For me, as I board this flight, I celebrate the gift of the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh, who has declared this to be the day of true equality, unity and peace and who gave us guidance to make it so.