GLI delegates blog from United Nations

March 7th

So, I don’t know if anyone else obsessively checks the New York Times app on their smartphone like me (or, if you’re in Mazelle Etessami’s ’14 boat, the Associated Press app), but I’m sure you must all have known about North Korea’s threat today to wage nuclear war on the U.S. and on South Korea, as well as the United Nations Security Council’s decision quickly after to impose more sanctions on them. As I stood in the very room the Security Council meets in today, I thought of the Security Council in there just a few hours before, as if I were trying to grasp on to the wave of history receding right before me. The United Nations tour I and the rest of the girl delegates from Girls Learn International, present for the UN’s 57th Commission on the Status of Women, were on didn’t give me much information I wasn’t already aware of (rotating members of the Security Council! Five permanent states! 193 in total! Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon!), but that moment was something you can’t just read about on Wikipedia.

The UN tour ate up an obscene amount of time, but we did get to attend one more panel, “Stop the Cycle: Strategies to Prevent Violence Against Girls,” put on by the International Council of Jewish Women and the Armenian Relief Society. It was definitely well worth attending, even moderated by a former director of the United States Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women. The panel provided an array of diverse voices, from a journalist from Cameroon to an activist engaging men from South Africa to a human rights advocate who directs an activist performance collective. I found Chi Yvonne Leina, the journalist from Cameroon, especially enlightening in her completely different background and the way technology has united her with women all over the world. Playing off the familiar sexist trope that “women belong in the kitchen,” she mentioned that once you have a smartphone, even if you’re still physically in the kitchen, you’re now in the whole world. She became turned to activism due to the Cameroon practice of breast ironing, which I had never heard of before, in which mothers misguidedly seek to destroy these signs of womanhood in an attempt to avoid teen pregnancy and rape. “The day I saw that,” Leina said, referring to when she witnessed her grandmother iron the breasts of her cousin, “my heart was ironed.” When her grandmother sought to do the same to her, she resisted.

Leina also urged us to recall that men aren’t always the only enemy. “The worldwide war against women is powered by women against women,” she said, no doubt taking into account her own experiences with breast ironing. Later, she also said, “We can’t just blame the patriarchy.” Despite the reality of the patriarchy, I found her point valid and I loved the way it brought on a conversation in the Q&A among women from Nigeria and Ghana in the audience.

Even if men aren’t the sole enemy, Dean Peacock, Executive Director of the Sonke Gender Justice Network in South Africa, reminded us that in countries like his own, domestic violence is a huge issue largely due to men, “a daily occurrence perpetrated in the vast majority by men and boys.” Interestingly, despite his own work, he was concerned with the way the issue of engaging men had taken up so much time at the CSW, and emphasized the importance of doing effective and meaningful work by keeping in dialogue with women’s rights organizations. Peacock also reminded us that simply attending all these parallel events at the CSW isn’t enough: “It’s not what happens in this room, it’s what happens when we leave,” he said. Similarly, the moderator said at one point, “Awareness is good, but you can’t awareness the problem away.”

I thought the last panelist, Jessica Greer Morris of Girl Be Heard, completely exemplified that with her work. She brought in one of her performers, Betsy. “At age 5, I opened up shop,” Betsy said. “It was a family-owned business” — sexually abused by most of the male members of her family, she thought this was the way it was supposed to be. Betsy now was one of many performers and writers for Girl Be Heard who also advocated for transgender awareness and the issue of sex trafficking in the US.

After the panel, Sarika Pandrangi ’13 had to go prepare to speak at a GLI fundraiser, and we couldn’t do much more, since it had been snowing and raining all day. However, we did get to eat dinner with Harvard-Westlake’s own Model UN; a few of their members had just arrived the day before for a huge nationwide Model UN conference. We all headed over to Magnolia Bakery afterward and split ways for an obligatory trip to Times Square, despite the unfortunate weather, which ruined our plans with some fellow GLI delegates. Considering we’re leaving tomorrow, though, the weather won’t have much more of a chance to interfere with us and our fragile Californian constitutions.

March 6th

Today, the third day at the 57th Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations, unfortunately didn’t include more time listening to the actual deliberations at the UN like yesterday, but it was still chock-full of wonderful activities. After breakfast we headed to an Armenian cathedral for the Girl-Boy Dialogue (no adults allowed, obviously). Amanda Aizuss ’13 moderated the panel, which included some really cool activists. The first girl to speak was a survivor of sexual abuse by her brother, and to combat her experiences she had become involved with spoken word, which was evident by the way she spoke. She was naturally eloquent, and when Amanda asked her a follow-up question after she spoke, when she talked extemporaneously and off the cuff it was as smoothly as if she’d had a speech prepared. Because of the way fellow survivors had responded to her spoken word poetry, she urged others to share their experiences, saying, “Whatever story you have is beautiful, whether you are a survivor of sexual abuse or a survivor of life,” and that “When you share your heart, you’re not a stranger anymore.”

Two of the panelists were boys from Washington D.C. and members of a great organization called Men Can Stop Rape, whose purpose is pretty evident from the title. Many of the panels I’ve been to have emphasized the importance of involving men as allies for the cause of women’s rights, which I obviously agree with, since for the issue of violence against women they often symbolize the source of these problems—as one of the boys from Men Can Stop Rape said, “If you plant a tree and it keeps on falling, you’ve got to figure out why.” The other two panelists detailed their experiences forming feminism and Girls Learn International clubs (the club for which we are delegates at CSW 57) at their schools, telling of the importance of safe spaces and again of involving boys (as Avery from Hamilton High in LA remarked to explain the interest of boys in feminism and GLI at her school, “What is hotter than a woman who knows what’s up?”).

After the panel, we split into groups to discuss what we had listened to and of greater issues involving violence against women and girls (the theme of this year’s CSW), and it was really great to talk to girls who held the same opinions as I did on rape culture and female sexuality. Once each group had summarized what it had talked about, we left to go to a panel called “Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment in Schools.” There, a woman from the American Association of University Women presented her research, which had been the first nationwide survey on sexual harassment on kids in grades seven to 12 in ten years. Although she polled them only on their experiences with harassment in the past year, 48 percent of the girls and boys she had surveyed had experienced sexual harassment – 56 percent of the girls and 40 percent of the boys. However, only nine percent reported it to a school official, and 50 percent said nothing at all. Besides noticing the way the effects of harassment increased depending on the student’s income level and race, the researcher realized she had to raise awareness of Title IX, a little-known anti-discrimination portion of the Education Amendments of 1972 that applies to sexual harassment.

An English and gender studies teacher from Elizabeth Irwin High School in New York as well as two of her students and another student also spoke, and I loved the way they talked about the importance of rights for transgender youth and of intersectionality, an issue which I myself spoke about as a witness yesterday for the Girls’ Tribunal. The teacher had mentioned the importance of having not just college-level but also high school-level gender studies classes like her own, and its positive influence on her students was clear. I would have loved to hear more of the panel, but unfortunately I had to leave early; I had been invited to Skype with Princess Basmah of Saudi Arabia, who wished to hear about the experiences of me and a few other girls at the Girls’ Tribunal the day before.

Although it took a few frustrating interactions with Skype and a switch to a cell phone on speaker before we could hold conversation, talking with someone whom we had to call “Your Royal Highness” was, of course, unbelievable. The princess was also an utterly inspiring figure—although hailing from Saudi Arabia, a region not known for its women’s rights, she had divorced her husband and moved with her children to London, becoming a feminist and advocate. “I can’t even begin to tell you what women there suffer on a daily basis,” she said to us. She stressed “Education, education and education” as the crucial way to advance the rights of women worldwide and especially in her homeland. We ended the call by singing her happy birthday, and she even asked us for our emails and birthdays so that, when the time came, she could wish us happy birthdays in return.

My day was of course pretty much made after that, but the rest of the day managed to live up to it—we attended a Girl’s Party at the Girl Scout Headquarters (typically, no cookies to be found) for all the girl delegates at the CSW, and it was interesting to see the way the real world inevitably leaked in. At one point a song by Chris Brown was played, a man I had talked about just a few hours ago during the Girl-Boy Dialogue for his problematic relationship with and domestic violence against Rihanna. We all discussed how terrible it was to play such music at a party at a UN conference precisely concerning violence against women and girls; you would think those picking the songs would know better. The night was salvaged, however, when, walking against frigid wind (apparently a huge storm is headed our way at the end of the week), we and some delegates from Oakwood, Marlborough and Pilgrim Schools went to Baskin Robbins for some ice cream, which, unlike Chris Brown, is appropriate for any time and place, even cold weather.

March 5th

Although today was the second, not the first, day of the 57th Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations, it was the first day I felt part of something truly real and legitimate. I began the day as one of three Girls Learn International delegates assigned to CSW monitoring, in which we actually went to the room at the United Nations where the assembly of 54 countries meets, formal deliberations are held and statements are made by each member state concerning the CSW 57 theme of the elimination and prevention of violence against women and girls. As members of GLI, we were to listen to the countries’ statements and take notes on whether or not they regarded the concerns specifically of girls; GLI will use our notes for their advocacy for the rest of the year. I and the two other GLI delegates felt impossibly official sitting there behind the nation’s representatives to the CSW, headphones in and taking notes. We got to hear statements made by countries I had never even heard of before, like Tuvalu and Kiribati. Near the end of my monitoring session the representative from Iran was called on to speak, and I was especially excited to listen to her, considering Iran’s terrible stance on women’s rights issues, but unlike the previous representatives I had heard, she spoke in Farsi rather than English, and we hadn’t been told that our headphones had a channel that translated everything into English.

Despite being in such a legitimate, important atmosphere, it was strange to encounter the illusions I’d previously held. I didn’t possess any fierce conviction that the UN was the efficient, powerful entity Woodrow Wilson wished it to be when his dream of the League of Nations was simply a gleam in his eye, but I was surprised by how disorganized it was; the room was full of people milling about, carrying on conversations while representatives delivered their statements. I witnessed more than a few iPhone group shots taken even as the Chair of the CSW would introduce another state representative. The representatives were beset with sound issues—the Chair had to pause the representative from Tuvalu when his speech got cut off from our headphones—and during statements the CSW bureau was busy organizing a conference room for all the people that didn’t fit in the room already. You could see politics in action, too—the representative from Samoa managed to twist his statement on the CSW’s theme of the elimination and prevention of violence against women and girls mostly into a statement about Samoa’s struggle with climate change.

Despite these issues, CSW Monitoring was undoubtedly a great way to start the day, and we were all reluctant to leave—I know Mazelle Etessami ’14, whose monitoring session was after mine, liked it so much she got to stay for another session, since the GLI Research Intern we were with had an extra UN pass.

Not too long after monitoring, I had to go to the Salvation Army to prepare again for the Girls’ Tribunal on violence in the media, schools and communities, which was to start in a couple hours. Although I’d already heard the speeches of my fellow witnesses during the practice the night before, I still couldn’t believe that I was speaking alongside these eminently qualified people. Besides the girls from Mozambique and El Salvador and Finland whom I mentioned in my previous post, the witnesses included a high school student in New York who’s spoken about feminism on channels like CNN, a New Jersey high school student who’s participated in creating legislation on teen domestic violence and Yale student who’s successfully petitioned Seventeen Magazine to cease photoshopping and airbrushing their models. To top that, the jurists included UN Women’s Deputy Director of Programs and Prince Zeid of Jordan.

The tribunal was just as great as CSW monitoring; it was so moving to hear stories from so many girls who had experienced violence firsthand and had engaged in activism against it. It was cool too to see how the jurists responded—one of my favorite moments occurred when, after Annemarie McDaniel (the Yale student) Emma Stydahar (the student from New York) gave their presentations on violence in the media, the jurist Abigail Disney (a filmmaker and, yes, granddaughter of that Disney) told them she would give them her ticket to an event she had just been invited to hosted by Vogue Magazine editor Anna Wintour, so that they could lecture Wintour on Vogue’s responsibility concerning body image issues.

Of course, nearly the whole time I was wracked by nerves, sitting in the front anxious to get my own “testimony” over with. I was one of the last witnesses to speak, and although I felt far less qualified in every way, my speech went well, or at the very least it seemed people liked it enough to congratulate me. I spoke about my experience with my sexuality at home in Los Angeles as well as the importance of intersectionality in feminism—that is, the way multiple systems of discrimination interact and play a role with each other and with feminism, such as sexuality and race.

Once the tribunal ended, the day was finally over for most of us—as I write, Amanda Aizuss ’13 is still at a dinner held by the National Council for Research on Women, since she and another GLI delegate are being recognized as among “30 Outstanding Trailblazers” worked to advance the cause of women and girls. Which is pretty amazing, honestly, as is most of what’s going on here. Tomorrow I’m even going on a Skype call with some other GLI delegates with Princess Basmah of Saudi Arabia, who wants to hear about our experience at the tribunal. Here’s hoping the rest of the week promises more like this.

March 4th

I am staring at a blank screen trying to decide how to start.

I suppose, as a good journalist should, that I should give some background: I, along with my sister Amanda Aizuss ’13, Sarika Pandrangi ’13, Mazelle Etessami ’14 and Sloane Wilson ’15, have come to New York this week as a delegate from the school’s Girls Learn International chapter to CSW 57 at the United Nations.

The theme of the CSW this year is the Prevention of Violence Against Women and Girls, particularly apt given the US’s recent reauthorization of its own Violence Against Women Act.

Though we’ve been here since Saturday morning, only today did the ferrying to and fro to various orientations end and the real action begin. Because GLI assigns its delegates to various teams, we don’t all do the same exact thing, so I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m fairly sure everyone was pretty busy. While Amanda and Sarika went to the official US government delegation’s briefing to hear about the government’s priorities at the CSW—Amanda’s packet was handed to her by John Kerry’s sister, she said—Mazelle and Sloane and I went to an event about Girl Scout programs for girls and mothers in detention centers, proving the Girl Scout organization’s coolness extends beyond cookies (alas, no thin mints were available).

After a late lunch, everyone headed over to the Young Women’s Caucus, while I had to go practice for a Girls’ Tribunal I’m going to speak at on Tuesday as a witness regarding LGBT issues—writing my speech was the first time today I stared at a blank Microsoft Word document on my computer. My fellow speakers include people from Norway and El Salvador and Mozambique; compared to them, it’s easy to feel a little unnecessary—what do I go through in my daily life compared to them?

After I read my speech though, the girl from Norway came up to me. She couldn’t understand, she said, why or how sexuality could matter at all here. It seemed ridiculous, absolutely terrible, she said. Which just goes to show, I suppose, how even though I think of American culture as comparatively progressive, how strange it may seem through the lens of someone else.

I’m glad I’m here to lay aside all my staid old presumptions and beliefs, and I’m sure the rest of the week will provide a wealth more of moments like these.

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