A global presence on women's issues at the UN

March 20, 2006

UNITED NATIONS, United States — Mary Caetana Aune has long been a champion of human rights. She has worked in her native Brazil with UNICEF and the Geledes Instituto da Mulher Negra, a minority women's advocacy group, to launch a "unity in diversity" website for educators there, and she also serves as an external affairs officer for the Baha'i community of Brazil.

But after spending a week here at the UN's annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), she has returned to Brazil with a new energy and perspective.

Inspired by the global participation of women and the unity of effort she witnessed at her first Commission meeting, she plans this year to encourage Brazilian Baha'i women to participate more actively in a national campaign against gender violence, among other things.

"We usually just support the campaign in Brazil, which is very beautifully conducted by other women's groups around the country," she said, referring to the "16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence" campaign, an international effort observed each fall. "This year we will probably do something more concrete."

Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the Commission has become something of a global rallying point for women and men who care about the advancement of women. Held this year from 27 February -- 10 March, the Commission drew some 1,500 representatives from more than 400 organizations -- including 21 Baha'is representing the Baha'i International Community and some 10 national Baha'i communities.

Like Ms. Aune, most members of the Baha'i delegation are very involved in women's activities in their own countries. They came to the Commission both to give input -- and to take away inspiration.

Mehri Afsahi represented not only the National Spiritual Assembly of Sweden but also the Swedish UNIFEM Committee and the Swedish Women's Lobby. And, like Ms. Aune, she has plans for more activity upon her return home.

"We are already planning for many seminars about the conference," said Ms. Afsahi, who funded her own travel to and from New York. "On my return home, UNIFEM had a one day program for the celebration of International Women's Day. Over 200 people participated."

Ms. Afsahi said her experiences at the Commission helped prepare her for the subsequent event in Sweden, which she chaired. "Our guest speakers were the Minister for Democracy, Metropolitan Affairs, Integration and Gender Equality, the Vice Prime Minister and the Swedish Ambassador from Brazil."

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Bani Dugal, principal representative of the Baha'i International Community to the United Nations, left, with South African First Lady Zanele Mbeki during a luncheon on 28 February 2006 at the Baha'i International Community offices in New York. More than 25 people attended, including representatives of the Mission of South Africa to the United Nations, the Mission of India to the United Nations, and various NGOs. Mrs. Mbeki spoke about a new program she has founded, South African Women in Dialogue (SAWID).

The 21-member Baha'i delegation to the CSW at the UN in New York came from countries in five continents, representing-in addition to Brazil and Sweden-Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Togo, the United Kingdom and the United States. The Baha'i International Community delegation was composed of four people.

Baha'i participation in the Commission provided opportunities for other related activities aimed at cementing important contacts with government representatives and collaborating with other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

On 28 February, for example, the Baha'i International Community hosted a luncheon for South African First Lady Zanele Mbeki at its offices in New York. More than 25 people attended, including representatives of the Mission of South Africa to the United Nations, the Indian Counsul General in New York, and various NGOs. Mrs. Mbeki spoke about a new program she has founded called South African Women in Dialogue (SAWID).

This year the Commission focused on two themes: the "enhanced participation of women in development" and promoting the "equal participation of women and men in decision-making processes at all levels." Baha'is sought to address these themes in various ways.

Zarin Hainsworth, who represents the National Alliance of Women's Organizations, a British NGO, as well as the Baha'is of the United Kingdom, facilitated three NGO workshops during the Commission meeting. One addressed the decision-making theme by exploring positive values learned from influential women, a second examined women and development by looking at how issues of international trade affect women, and the third addressed the plight of widows.

"I think the CSW is improving over time as it becomes more inclusive of civil society," said Ms. Hainsworth, who has participated in Commission meetings for the last several years.

For representatives of the Baha'i community of Canada, also seasoned Commission participants, the theme of equal participation in decision-making is an important one.

"I always return with a renewed desire to see if more men couldn't get involved in this work," said Gerald Filson, director of external affairs for the Baha'i community of Canada and one of a growing number of men who attend the Commission each year.

"The necessity of keeping this theme in high profile has underscored the importance of our building new and useful information tools in Canada, a regular bulletin or publication for the community at large, more advancement of women news on our website, and more local projects focused on these issues," said Mr. Filson.

His colleague, Elizabeth Wright, director of the Office for the Advancement of Women of the Baha'i Community of Canada, likewise sees her focus in "continuing the work on partnership between women and men, in the Baha'i community and in society, using pilot projects of equality workshops."

"Even though the integration of men in the women's movement is still considered with fear or prudence by many feminists, it is clear that at the government level, many are ready to go in this direction," said Ms. Wright.

Kit Bigelow, director of external affairs for the Baha'i community of the United States, has been attending the Commission for more than two decades.

"Our purpose in participating in the conference was to obtain useful knowledge and information to inform our advocacy work on the advancement of women in the United States," said Ms. Bigelow.

One focus for the US Baha'i delegation is to promote ratification in the United States of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

"The role of the CEDAW in promoting both of these goals was underscored throughout the Commission, which assists our work in promoting the treaty's ratification in the United States," said Ms. Bigelow.

"In addition, the knowledge shared on methods to promote women's participation in development will aid our work in advocating for full gender integration into government-based international development agencies in the United States."

Added Sharona Shuster, Ms. Bigelow's colleague and the US Baha'i representative for women's issues: "Baha'is see the achievement of gender equality in policy and in families as a prerequisite for the great peace that all religions refer to."

-- By Veronica Shoffstall