One Week at the United Nations, and Some Observations about Women’s Equality

Published Saturday, June 03, 2017

Alexandra Yiannoutsos
June 5th, 2017


The United Nations Commission on Social Development is a conference in its 55th year at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. The goal of this annual conference is to foster dialogue about development goals between ambassadors representing member states, non-governmental organizations, students, doctors, researchers, and the private sector. Each year, the Commission chooses a different theme, and this year’s was called “Strategies for eradicating poverty to achieve sustainable development for all”. Moreover, we know that poverty around the world is extremely feminized.


As I watched and participated in the proceedings, I thought about whether and how this goal was being pursued at this Commission. As a result, I discovered that women’s equality, at the level of our daily experiences, is misunderstood at the United Nations.


I attended as a director of student representatives for the International Relations Students’ Association at McGill. The goal of the group was to advocate for greater youth involvement in high-level decision making. However, I also wanted to analyze modern issues such as sustainable development, conflict, and economic crises through a feminist lens.


How does women’s equality factor into sustainable development?

In 2015, the UN set seventeen goals and 169 targets called The Sustainable Development Goals, where one of the major areas is to “achieve gender equality and empowerment of women and girls,” Goal number five. This goal stipulates the importance of women’s access to education, freedom from discrimination, protection from violence, and universal access to sexual and reproductive health care. Every goal champions women’s inclusion, access, and equality, because it is not possible to eradicate poverty, prevent disease, or achieve any of the other goals while excluding half of the world population.


The Commission on Social Development prides itself on including female voices and therefore setting an example for the world to follow. Out of five vice-chairpersons, four were women. Many ambassadors, researchers, doctors, NGO and youth representatives emphasized the necessity of prioritizing gender equality in development. Side-events, which are small conferences led by NGOs and member states over specific topics, also included issues pertinent to women’s equality, such as sexual health and child development.


A Concerning Discussion about Child Welfare and Motherhood

The conferences were divided into several sessions. Speakers in the “Child and Family Poverty in the Middle East” session focused on methods to improve childhood development. Needless to say, child welfare and women’s rights are very closely connected. When the question and answer period arrived, I suggested improving social services for single-parents - especially women escaping domestic violence, and increasing paid maternity leave. Interestingly, some took issue with my comments.


One speaker in particular spoke of reinforcing “traditional family values”, presumably suggesting that full childhood development and financial stability requires two married parents, and opposing subsidies to single mothers. He argued that such provisions would disincentivize women who are also single mothers from re-entering the workforce.


The speaker continued to argue that “single-parenting” is the root issue limiting child development. He explicitly stated that there is “always a cost” to society and women in particular. He further remarked that, in fact, marriage requires that women sacrifice their freedom. More government benefits, he asserted, make women less motivated to provide for their families, citing the decline of marriage, the rise of individualism, and feminism as additional obstacles to the welfare of the child.


“The cost of women’s freedom,” he claimed, “is a price that society has to be willing to pay”. I and many others reject this notion.


Child Welfare is inseparable from Women’s Rights

While it is deplorable to suggest that women be shamed into marriage or motherhood in order to maintain society’s “traditional family values,” this backwards statement offers an opportunity to reinforce our analysis of women’s rights in the context of motherhood and marriage.


Why would more empowered, equality-seeking women avoid marriage? More women have the opportunity to financially support themselves without a partner due to access to education and to previously male-dominated job markets. In earlier generations, a woman’s worth was counted in the number of children she birthed for her husband and her place was in the home. Her questions, refusal, and protests were considered hysteria. Although these issues persist today, they have evolved to a point in society where single womanhood is possible.


Being forced to give up our freedom simply because we are women is a price we already pay. Society does not pay us back fairly ( which could be 78, 64, and 54 cents to the dollar, depending on the colour of your skin). This compounds the fact that the division of labour is still strongly gendered, and the care work performed by women has been historically undervalued.


Lastly, the claim that subsidizing single mothers leads to higher unemployment is false. In fact, American research indicates that single mothers that receive subsidies from the government are more likely to be employed. Women who have access to funds for services such as childcare, healthcare, and education are better equipped to find and keep a job. Paid employment is not the only form of legitimate labor, like child care, nor is it the strongest indicator of women’s equality. For example, “women are segregated into low paying occupations, and occupations dominated by women are low paid”. Poor, single mothers not only have less access to high paying jobs, but these women are at risk for physical, verbal, and sexual abuse in the workplace.


Promoting women’s rights is the way forward

Women are making great strides in gender equality internationally, but the work is not over. My experience at the United Nations revealed that, even at an international level, it’s widely recognized that women are severely affected by inequality, and yet we are simultaneously blamed for being oppressed. Making women’s equality a Sustainable Development Goal is a good start, but will not ensure women’s equality in its own right. We all must be willing to fight for the rights of our world and of future generations.