Rutgers Students Advocate for Women on U.N.’s Global Stage
Training offers insight into workings of multinational body
For Nadia Khan, attending the 56th annual session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women last spring served not only as the culmination of six months’ intensive training, but also as an unfiltered look at the issues the world’s women grapple with on a daily basis.
At one heated session, participants were debating the role of economic and social rights in advancing gender equity. At another, talk centered on women’s reproductive rights in Russia, while at another, activists were grappling with the complexities of sex-trafficking in the Philippines.
“These are real lives and real confrontations,” says Khan, a public health major in Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences. “Listening to prominent people speak – including the former president of Chile, for example – gave us an opportunity to put a human face on our classroom experience.”
Since 2011, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL), based at Rutgers, has given more than 30 undergraduate students, 16 of them at a time, the opportunity to participate in its student advocacy training course, which its organizers believe to be the only one of its kind in the nation.
The program brings together students, academics, experts and activists in the months leading up to the commission’s annual meeting, which runs for two weeks at United Nations headquarters in New York.
Founded in 1946, the year Eleanor Roosevelt served as a U.S. delegate to the world body, the Commission on the Status of Women evaluates global progress on women’s rights, setting metrics for and formulating concrete policies to promote gender equality.
“Our students attend both the U.N. official sessions and the non-governmental, parallel events that nongovernmental organizations hold,” says Margot Baruch, program coordinator at CWGL. “It’s an important way for them to see the linkages between what’s happening locally and what’s happening globally with respect to human rights.”
Among the goals of the training are enhancing the leadership skills of Rutgers students and showcasing students’ commitment to social justice, feminism and human rights, says Radhika Balakrishnan, executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership and a professor of women’s and gender studies.
“The training is unique because it bridges theory and practice, and it provides students access to global activism and policy-making."
From day one of the program on the Douglass Residential Campus, participants get a thorough grounding on how the United Nations works and how students can play a role in influencing policy change through advocacy and organizing.
“In class, they teach us to know our facts, to provide numbers and facts during an encounter, to be able to identify people who share your concerns and pull them aside wherever you meet them, even in the hallways and the elevators,” Khan recalls.
A resource in the training is the center’s founding director Charlotte Bunch, under whose leadership the Rutgers center gained a strong reputation in the international women’s rights movement.
“She gave us a really good overview of what the United Nations does and does not do,” says Khan, a resident of Northfield who plans to pursue a career in public health. Khan hopes to apply the lessons she learned during her training when she’s out in the field.
“This 2012 commission focused on rural women and the issues they face,” she says. “Urban women have to deal with gender inequities the same way rural women do, but it’s a different fight and it’s often much harder for rural women because society often forgets about them. Many of the issues we talked about involved labor – the effort they put in every day to survive, going to the markets to sell their goods, not having the resources to advance financially. Many of them can barely make ends meet.”
The theme for 2013 will be the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls. It’s a theme which dovetails nicely with CWGL’s “16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign,” Baruch says.
Going into its 21st year, the campaign is a global advocacy effort encompassing the work of more than 4,000 organizations in 172 countries. It focuses a lens on gender-based violence through workshops, lectures, lobbying efforts, online discussions and strategy-planning sessions.
This year’s campaign will take place November 25 to December 10.
available for the next student advocacy training, to be offered in the spring
as a three-credit course under the leadership of Radhika Balakrishnan through
the Women and Gender Studies Department. Interested students can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Radhika Balakrishna will moderate a panel on women's economic, social and cultural rights at the 21st session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission. The event will take place September 20 in Geneva.