Embracing Western Values: CFI’s President Reports from the UN Commission on the Status of Women

April 3, 2018

The 62nd UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) took place in New York from March 12-17, with an agenda focused on empowering rural women and girls. The Center for Inquiry’s president and CEO, Robyn Blumner was there and reported back on this illuminating event.

The CSW included more than 8000 representatives from 1121 civil society organizations (NGOs) from around the world, and as best we as can be determined, Robyn was the only person associated with an NGO representing secular people and interests.

Official meetings were held in the General Assembly room in which only member state delegations (each individual country’s representatives) participated. Presentations consisted of short statements by country delegations boasting about the progress they have made in advancing the equality and status of rural women and girls.

Most countries focused on the advances in education for girls, literacy rates especially in developing countries, and in promoting women’s economic advancement. There was particular attention to closing the digital divide and bringing girls into technology and STEM fields.

Robyn found that the most promising aspect of these reports was the embrace of western normative values as a baseline for progress. The right to bodily autonomy and access to reproductive health care, including contraception and abortion rights, were explicitly embraced as a component of women’s equality. Child marriage and female genital mutilation was openly and strongly condemned as harmful. Support was expressed for the rights of lesbians, widows, and other marginalized groups of women. The current United Nations Secretary General, former Prime Minister of Portugal, Antonio Guterres, addressed the NGOs attending with pointed remarks that demonstrate his interest in and support for these issues.

Outside the 18 official meetings (many of which were closed to NGO representatives and only open to country delegations) there were more than 280 side events; public presentations within the United Nations grounds hosted by member states and UN agencies. Off the UN grounds but nearby there were 440 additional parallel events. These are hosted by NGOs.

Side events were very well attended, and Robyn often found simply finding a seat challenging, but did manage to attend about a dozen over the week. She specifically sought out any event put on by an Islamic country, including one put on by Saudi Arabia, another by Iran, and one simply titled “Empowering Women and Promoting Gender Justice in the Muslim World.”

Speakers at these side events included a Ugandan cabinet minister, an Egyptian ambassador to the United Nations, a physician and women’s rights advocate in Saudi Arabia, and the founder of Islamic Relief Gender Justice Policy. Robyn lauded the progressive faith-based groups and other rights-oriented NGO representatives who boldly challenged the speakers at these side events.

For example, a question was posed at the side event put on by Iran asking about the controversy over the hijab. The questioner asked about the protests with women removing their hijabs and suggested if women aren’t empowered to decide for themselves what to wear there cannot be real advancement.

“The panelists mainly avoided the question,” reported Robyn. “But they certainly heard it.”

Robyn was encouraged to find that there were many such challenges at the Islamic events from questioners who were from those countries and within those faith traditions. “The value of these meetings is that it normalizes progressive values – secular values – as desirable goals for human flourishing and advancement,” Robyn told us, noting that delegations came with reports of measurable educational, economic, and legal progress for women and girls.

“During the week I met numerous people involved in this work,” said Robyn. “They were generally delighted to have CFI’s participation.”

And CFI is glad to be participating, bringing the too often overlooked secular perspective to these issues of global importance.

# # #

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at www.centerforinquiry.net.