Neglecting the rights of elderly women

The first time I saw the list of side events featured at the Commission on the Status of Women, I found myself overwhelmed by the broad range of topics, from education to reproductive rights to human trafficking and many more.

Yet one topic that I found to be neglected was the ageing population and the violence and violation of rights that older women face. Today I attended the only side-event that addressed this issue, with a panel that involved officials from Argentina and Slovenia. Representing civil society was Susan Somers and Patricia Brownell, who are associated with the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse. Among other things, they spoke about some of the negative perceptions society had on older women, and how common it was to view the elderly as a drain on resources and society.

I was surprised that this issue received little attention at the commission; with a global population that is increasing at an exponential rate and population ageing reaching a new precedent, how can we neglect to include the protections of older women in the agreed conclusions and future Sustainable Development Goals? Upon being asked why the rights of elderly women were so neglected at the Commission on the Status of Women, Dr. Brownell modestly replied that they were trying their best efforts to spread the word, and emphasized how important it is for civil society to continue being active and advocating for elderly women's rights to be placed on the international community's development agenda. Other panelists were more blunt in their replies, stressing how neglected this issue was, and how they needed us all to help spread the word throughout the conference.

Hearing Maria Perceval, the ambassador from Argentina, speak gave me goosebumps. Although we could tell that English was not her first language, her message was still clear: the rights of elderly women have been pushed aside in the international community's agenda for far too long, especially considering how much more susceptible they have been to poverty in her country. Her words drew a deafening applause from the crowd, as we could feel the raw emotion in her voice. Throughout my time in this conference, we have emphasized how much the commission neglects the voice of young people.

It's only been three days, and I've already been exposed to an overwhelming plethora of issues surrounding the status of women around the world. Aside from having to prioritize and represent the views set forth by their governments, national representatives are asked to consider many different goals set forth by civil society. Throughout my high school career, I have studied these issues from a more theoretical lens; I have role played as a governmental delegate in several Model UN committees, but my experience here so far has made it clearer than ever how much these simulations have shown me an incredibly oversimplified version of the work that these delegates do. I can only imagine how difficult it is to balance or consider all these other important agendas with the tasks their governments have already set out for them.

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Celebrating Differences

The most inspiring thing about my week at the 58th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women hasn’t necessarily been the events, or the fact that it’s being held in a dazzling city. The most inspiring thing has been seeing women from all over the world come together for a common purpose: to advance the empowerment of women. If you were already under the impression that women’s empowerment was a broad issue, you’d be surprised at just how much more broad the issue becomes when you’re taking into account the personal and varying experiences of billions of women worldwide.

Often, when I talk to people about women’s empowerment, the immediate response is something along the lines of “Yeah, yeah, sure. Women should be treated like men. You’re right. I get it.” But it is infinitely more complicated than that. Women don’t want to be treated like men – we want to be treated like autonomous human beings, whose thoughts and feelings are respected, and whose individual needs are met. I’ve been to events that have covered a range of topics - from mental health to violence, from why race matters to making sure that girls have equal access to education - and in each one of these sessions, the same message comes through: Women cannot be empowered by using men as models for what we deserve in life. Rather, women must be empowered by creating our own models for what empowerment means to each of us. What empowers a white woman in America most likely won’t be what empowers a Black woman in America, let alone a young girl from Uganda or a mother in Portugal, and that’s okay. It is our responsibility to name what we are lacking and what we need so that we can create a world in which those needs are met.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is by Audre Lorde. She writes “Divide and conquer must become define and empower.” To me, this quote means that our differences shouldn’t be something that causes us fear; rather, our differences are cause for celebration! Instead of being overwhelmed by the complexities that each of us embody, and instead of trying to create a universal form of empowerment, we should recognize that just as people are different from each other, what empowers us and leads us to be self-actualized can and should be different too. If there is one thing to be learned from the United Nations, it is that our diversity is integral to building a world worth living in. 

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Review of CSW58 session: Implementing Women and Girl's Circles: A tool to vitalize progress with the Millennium Development Goals

Today I listened to a girl speak. She was a high school student, like me, but just a bit older. She said she was a girl advocate, by which she meant she takes stories of girls she loves and gives them a voice. The story she gave voice to today was that of a young girl in Bangladesh. She met this girl while part of a program that let her spend a month in Bangladesh. This young girl, who was in the eighth grade, was so beaten down by the oppressive culture towards women in her country, including her home, that she took on manly attributes because she wanted to be strong. In her eyes, she could only be strong if she were manly, women were weak, or fragile as her parents told her.

How sad that women are seen as weak in so many cultures, and by so many. Women are strong. We bear children, we raise them, and too often, we bury them. We are the glue that holds families together. But we are so much more than just our maternal roles. We invent and discover like Grace Hopper or Madame Curry. We lead, like Wilma Mankiller, or even women who make their mark in culture like Lupita Nyong'o or Meryl Streep. We can do so much as women, without having to be. You don't have to be manly to be strong, but to be a woman it helps to be strong.