Five days at the 58th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women were both too much and not enough. Panel after panel, speaker after speaker, our brains were filled with the wide range of topics that can fall under the heading of “women’s issues”. Yet I still feel like there was so much I missed, even within the sessions I attended. I often wished there had been time to say “Excuse me – can you repeat that? I can’t keep up!”
However, to balance this overwhelming act of stuffing the brain, our cohort of ELCA young adults came together each night to debrief and discuss. It is this part of the past week for which I am most grateful. I need to process things out loud, to hear other’s thoughts and reflections, so having the opportunity to say “This is what I’ve been thinking all day and what the heck do I do with that?!” is of the utmost importance for my whole understanding.
The wonderful Rozella White, Director of ELCA Young Adult ministries, led our talks during the week with a few simple questions. We worked through a few of our senses – seeing, hearing, and feeling/thinking. Since I’m still having trouble organizing my thoughts, I think that I will follow her model and boil it down to these simple questions.
What did I see?
I saw the United Nations. I saw the director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlgamo-Ngcuka, speak not once, but twice! She made an appearance at our Ecumenical Women orientation, speaking her support for our work. I saw panelists who inspired and panelists who disappointed. I saw many rooms so full of people that there was not even any standing room. The thousands who came to New York for CSW 58 were eager to listen and learn, so we packed every event for a chance to hear hope or learn solutions.
What did I hear?
I heard how important these next two years are for discussing development; the Millennium Development Goals were set to be completed by 2015, but they are not even close to being met. What do the next set of development markers look like? Why were the MDGs unsuccessful? What are the most important aspects of gender equality that need to be a part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? I heard a clear call from member nations and NGOs for a stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s rights. What I also heard less loudly, but just as consistently, was a call for normalizing discussions about gender. We cannot just create a gender justice goal and think that it is enough – each SDG must include intentional language about gender.
From our cohort, I heard a desperate desire to hear positive words from and about faith-based communities and organizations. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, that desire was not always met. Faith-based organizations are doing major development work all over the world – they are often some of the only help in rural communities. However, their messaging and their services can do more harm than good. This leads to frustration on the part of secular organizations who will then try to leave faith out of their programs. The reality is that many turn to faith in times of crises and we need to be clearer and louder about being an inclusive, caring community in order to affect the change we want to see.
What do I feel?
I feel that as Lutherans, we can be a place of faithful hope and healing for those experiencing oppression due to gender issues. But we are constantly asking ourselves, “How do we get this message out to the people who need it?”. We must be clear in our words and we must be willing to reach out to those groups who we may have pushed away in the past. We must be truthful about our faults and explicit in our assertion that we are all made in God’s image. Secular organizations need to know that we can be a resource, too. We cannot continue to operate in separate spheres when the reality is that everyone has varying needs which may or may not include spiritual guidance at any given time.
I also feel that we need to speak to the problems we see in our own country at an event so focused on worldwide issues. The United States and the rest of West are clearly not immune from poverty, sexism, health issues, and beyond, so why are there only a few voices speaking this at such an important event? The ELCA is a global church, but our main context is the United States. If other major entities are not going to say “We have development issues, too!”, then who is? Again, our faith allows us to be confessional. We can be a model in admitting that we have also overlooked our neighbors right here. We cannot rely on other organizations, including the UN, to hold our own country accountable, so we must do so.
Just as the UN has much work to do on creating development goals that create equality for all, we as church have much to do as well. My time at the CSW58 may have been short, but I’ve come back with a clearer understanding of the gaps that still need covered. Most of all, I’ve been reminded of the power of community and relationships thanks to my lovely cohort members, and I think that that power is the key to changing our world.
Molly Kestner, Assistant for ELCA Justice for Women