Thirty-five Presbyterian women, including 11 young adults, will attend the 59th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York in March. The delegation is organized through a partnership involving the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, Racial Ethnic & Women’s Ministries, and Presbyterian Women in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The Presbyterian presence is possible because the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is accredited to the United Nations through the Economic and Social Council.

The Presbyterian News Service recently sat down with Mark Koenig and Ryan Smith, staff of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, to discuss the upcoming Commission experience and the Presbyterian participation. 

What is the Commission on the Status of Women?

The Commission on the Status of Women is a functional Commission of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. It is one of the oldest in the UN, currently consisting of 45 members: thirteen from Africa, eleven from Asia, nine from Latin America/the Caribbean, eight from western Europe and other countries (including the U.S.), and four from eastern Europe. Member states are elected to four-year terms. 

The Commission’s primary focus is women’s rights and helping shape global standards on gender equality and the empowerment of women. In recent years, the Commission has dedicated its annual sessions to women and girls’ access to education and full employment, empowerment of women living in rural areas and their role in poverty and hunger eradication, and violence against women and girls. 

This year, the Commission will devote its two-week meeting to a review of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a major policy document on gender equality. The Commission will spend two weeks in general discussion and specific panel discussions to identify gaps and challenges and recommend areas for improvement. 

What is the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and why is it being reviewed?

The Beijing Platform came out of the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. The main focus was gender equality and the empowerment of women. For two weeks, representatives of more than 180 governments hammered out historic commitments to produce the most progressive plan for advancing women’s rights. 

The platform addressed 12 critical areas of concern:

    • The persistent and increasing burden of poverty on women
    • Inequalities and inadequacies in and unequal access to education and training
    • Inequalities and inadequacies in and unequal access to health care and related services
    • Violence against women
    • The effects of armed or other kinds of conflict on women, including those living under foreign occupation
    • Inequality in economic structures and policies, in all forms of productive activities, and in access to resources
    • Inequality between men and women in the sharing of power and decision making at all levels
    • Insufficient mechanisms at all levels to promote the advancement of women
    • Lack of respect for and inadequate promotion and protection of the human rights of women
    • Stereotyping of women and inequality in women's access to and participation in all communication systems, especially in the media
    • Gender inequalities in the management of natural resources and in the safeguarding of the environment
    • Persistent discrimination against and violation of the rights of the girl child 

The platform identified strategic objectives and concerns to advance women’s rights and challenged government and civil society to develop and implement viable solutions. 

The Commission has reviewed the platform at five-year intervals to evaluate the process. On this the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing Platform and Declaration of Action, the Commission will once again conduct a review. 

How does the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) participate in the Commission?

NGOs with accreditation from the UN Economic and Social Council are able to send participants to the Commission. In 1998, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) applied for and received accreditation. 

Presbyterians have long affirmed equal rights for women and have worked for them within the UN system. A Presbyterian delegation participated in the 1995 Beijing Conference. This year, the church will have as many as 35 taking part in the Commission and related activities. Some will be participating in the Commission for the first time, while others have been attending for years. 

We will work with our partners in Ecumenical Women to advocate with Commission members for women’s rights with a focus on violence and discrimination against women, poverty, inequalities, and climate change, education and training of women and girls, and women and health, including full access to reproductive health and informed decision making. 

How does the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) work with Ecumenical Women?

Ecumenical Women is an international coalition of church denominations and ecumenical organizations. The organization was founded in 2000 on the five-year review of the Beijing Platform, to enhance the collaboration of progressive churches and organizations to advocate for women’s rights at the Commission. 

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Presbyterian Women in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are among the organizations that make up Ecumenical Women, along with the Anglican Communion; Anglican Women’s Empowerment (friend); Association of Presbyterian Women Aotearoa New Zealand; Church Women United; Episcopal Church; Lutheran World Federation; Medical Mission Sisters; National Council of Churches (USA) (friend); The Salvation Army; United Church of Christ; United Methodist Church; Women’s Missionary Society of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; World Council of Churches; World Federation of Methodist and Uniting Church Women; Women’s Missionary Society of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; World Student Christian Federation and World YWCA. This is a true partnership of faith-based and secular organizations who share a common cause and goal. 

Why does the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) participate in the Commission on the Status of Women?

Our faith proclaims that all people are made in God’s image and are to be honored and treated with dignity and respect. Through word and deed, Jesus revealed God’s intention that we love one another and invites all people to do the same. Through participation in the Commission on the Status of Women, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will witness to God’s love for all as we work to promote the rights of women.  

Our participation provides an opportunity to look back and recognize whether we think the world has progressed or has fallen short in the pursuit of women’s rights. We will use our place at the table to take part in the conversation, reminding governments that we are watching and care about how the rights of women are honored and protected. We will also learn ways to further our efforts to honor the rights of women in our communities and around the world.