We Speak With Houry Guedelekian About Women’s Rights and Why Menstrual and Reproductive Rights Still Aren’t Getting Enough Traction at the UN Commission on the Status of Women
While we’ve covered the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women in past years here at CycleDork, this year we got a comprehensive view from Houry Guedelekian, who has dedicated her career to bringing gender equality to global attention, on CSW 2018.
Houry has been front and center in many pivotal campaigns for women’s rights and gender equality, both in and outside of the UN. She is a founding member of the Cities for CEDAW campaign, and the Beijing Platform for Action +20. Now on their planning committee, she was a board member of NGO CSW NY for five years, and currently works for Unchained At Last, an ECOSOC-accredited NGO, which works to end early and forced marriage in the United States.
In speaking with Houry, her passion for and commitment to women’s rights came through at every turn in our conversation. Read on to learn how a lot is changing, and not always for the better – now is not the time to turn a blind eye. I hope you’ll be inspired to take action – I know I was!
To start off, tell us a bit about the organization you were representing at the Commission of the Status of Women (CSW)?
I’ve been involved with the CSW for seven years, but this past year I started representing Unchained At Last, a very small organization based here in the United States, and our mission is to stop early forced marriage in the U.S.
Historically, when it comes to the United States, we’re the people who tend to point fingers without looking at what we are doing with regard to poverty and human rights violations, so it’s been interesting to shine a light on these areas.
Right. I was aware that human trafficking is a huge issue in the United States that nobody talks about – but I did not know that early forced marriage was an issue here as well.
Exactly. It’s certainly not as prevalent as in other areas of the world, but still, in a country where you would not expect this to be happening, it happens quite a lot. You can get all the numbers on our website, but to give you a snapshot, there are 25 states with no minimum age requirement, and many states have age requirements with a minimum of 14 to 17.
So, that’s where I was coming from this past year, but for the previous six years I’ve been with NGO CSW, which organizes the public forum alongside the CSW every year.
As you know, CycleDork is focused on menstrual and reproductive health — how have these causes played a role in the CSW in past years? Was there anything different that you noted this year?
Reproductive rights have always been the sticking point from day one. Actually, this year was the second year since I’ve been attending that the priority theme was “rural women” and the first year I attended with that theme in 2012, there was no outcome document due to arguments over the issue of reproductive rights. That’s why this year, the Chair of the CSW, who was the ambassador from Ireland, was determined that we should have an outcome document.
One change that I did notice, which was welcome, was the use of the term “women and girls” in the documents, and that sometimes “girls” would be addressed alone. This is important because there are some issues, and reproductive rights is one of them, where different obstacles affect girls more than women, and vice versa. Reproductive and menstrual health issues can be a larger problem for girls, for example, when they are kept out of school, or have limited or no access to healthcare. Girls are also often considered more disposable than women.
A second change is the appearance of the term “diverse families” – this has been as contentious as the reproductive rights, mainly because of the inclusion of LGBTQ rights. Over the past few years, the more we’ve been bringing this term and activism in this area to the forefront, the more pushback we’ve been seeing.
Unfortunately, we still do not have reproductive rights fully addressed or diverse families included in the outcome documents.
Finally, something that was different this year, especially from the last time we focused on rural women, is how the U.S. is camped out with the more conservative position. They have become more conservative and aligned with countries like Iran and entities like the Holy See. They have been much more public about fighting against reproductive rights, likely to please our leadership and their followers. I know a number of U.S. representatives are cringing, but this is the party line now.
This also played a role in restricting access to the UN locally and globally through the U.S. as host country. Over the years we have always had issues with visa access to the UN. But this year, over 130 people were denied a visa, even people who have been here before to the CSW, and that is unprecedented. The really unfortunate thing was that at the briefing by the U.S. Mission, someone specifically asked a question regarding these visa denials, and one of the U.S. representatives blatantly disregarded the issue.
It’s interesting to see that this sort of dismissal of the broader work of the UN Commission on the Status of Women via access to it comes hand in hand with a hardening stance on women’s reproductive rights.
Yes, and actually at the end of the U.S. Mission briefing as the host country, they opened the floor to Q&A and they had two women planted in the audience. These women were clearly from the right, and they praised the administration for the way they were improving women’s lives. The way they phrased it was so clever because they linked women’s health and sex education to strengthening traditional families – so therefore, reproductive rights are issues for families, and states and governments should not be involved.
This is all a little disheartening. Were there any positive takeaways from this year’s event?
It really is disappointing. But we are happy to have an outcome document. One of the wins for us was protection for human rights defenders, which was contested between governments for over 24-hours. But we felt it was important with what has been happening lately with human rights defenders being shot to death, and the line did make it into the outcome document.
We were also better to able to include girls’ rights, as I mentioned before – but there is still more work to be done there.
It seems like reproductive rights are still as contentious as ever, but is there at least recognition – especially with the priority theme of rural women – that improved access to menstrual products is important, especially when it leads to girls being kept out of school during their periods?
Actually, in my opinion – as much as I love these documents – and think that the outcome document is important, the bigger picture is the conversations that happen. And what is important about the CSW is the people that it brings together. No matter how many documents we sign and how many laws we are able to get into place, implementation and accountability comes from the involvement of civil society.
To come back to your question, this year I noticed that even though less rural women were able to attend due to visa restrictions and other issues, we had enough of them and other advocates for some amazing discussion, specifically about education and menstruation. All of those issues were completely front row center, especially in the parallel events.
(You can view this year’s parallel events here – keep in mind you can attend these and look for next year’s schedule!)
How can all of us get more involved to support the work of the CSW, and to make sure that more proactive voices are in the room?
Even if you are not representing an organization and do not have a UN badge to access the grounds, NGO CSW is an amazing coalition of NGOs, and I invite everyone to come to their monthly meetings. We have a meeting that’s open to everyone every third Thursday of the month, and you can also become a member. So, show up, learn, and share.
We are excited and proud that more and more new faces are showing up and are concerned and want to be more involved. I think there is a growing awareness that we are connected to global issues and hindrances. Especially for us in the U.S., if we want to lead by example, then we really need to make sure that we are a good example.
Beyond that, get involved in areas that you are passionate about. Write to your representatives, and I know that gets said a lot, but it is an important tool that we have.
The organization I work with, Unchained At Last, is a great example – they zeroed in on an issue affecting women, and they are literally changing laws state by state. If early forced marriage is not your topic, pick one that is close to your heart. There is another great campaign called Cities For CEDAW, which is implementing the framework for eliminating violence against women city by city, and state by state. So, there’s a lot that we can do and any advances we make in one area will help us to make advances in others, including on issues of menstrual and reproductive rights.
Kara Ferreira is a fertility health expert who works with women to troubleshoot their monthly cycles and digestion so that they can feel their best and be their best selves. Read her full bio here.