by Allie Naskret (M.Div., 2013)
Women make up the majority of the world’s poor. The reality of the world today is that women are disproportionately affected by poverty, due to unequal access to resources and opportunities, discriminatory land and inheritance laws, and unequal distribution of household resources. Violence against women persists, particularly in regions ravaged by war and natural disasters.
Recognizing these realities, the United Nations has made significant efforts to work for women’s empowerment in the past few decades. Each year in late February and early March (the beginning of Women’s History Month), hundreds of organizations and civil society activists gather in New York City to participate in the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations. Women and men from all parts of the globe come to exchange stories and ideas, make connections, and push for change, as governments create and evaluate policies to address women’s empowerment and gender equality around the world. As a field education student at the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, I had the privilege of participating in the Commission and hearing the stories of many incredible women – stories of suffering and poverty, the struggle for transformation, and ultimately, hope.
A dedicated team of staff members at the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations spent a good portion of the year preparing for the CSW – compiling stories and information from our global partners, writing advocacy statements to be sent to the Commission, working with our ecumenical partners through an organization called Ecumenical Women, and preparing for the arrival of a delegation of more than 40 Presbyterian women from around the country and the world. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has had a long history of public witness at the United Nations, working within the United Nations community in some capacity for longer than about two-thirds of UN member states. Today, the goal of the Presbyterian Ministry at the UN is to inspire, equip, and connect Presbyterians for ministry as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in the global community. Advocating for peace and justice in the public realm is one way that we believe we can stand in solidarity with our sisters and brothers around the world, as we follow Christ’s call to love our neighbors.
The Commission on the Status of Women has been taking place at the United Nations since 1946. Each year, a Commission of 45 UN member states meets for a period of two weeks to “evaluate progress on gender equality, identify challenges, set global standards, and formulate concrete policies to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment.” Non-governmental organizations with UN consultative status, like the Presbyterian Church (USA), are able to influence these processes through various means of advocacy. This year’s theme for the CSW focused on assessing the needs of women living in rural areas. Three Presbyterian women from rural areas of the U.S. were given scholarships to participate in the CSW, where they were able to share their unique stories and perspectives with other delegates.
The advocacy team hard at work in the conference room at the Presbyterian Ministry at the UN
As a delegate on behalf of the Presbyterian Church (USA), my two weeks of CSW were a whirlwind of advocacy efforts, UN sessions, educational side-events, testimonies from inspiring women, new friendships, tears, laughter, and general exhaustion. During the week, I heard Leymah Gbowee, one of the 2011 Nobel Peace laureates, speak about her work in Liberia, organizing and leading a women’s peace movement that brought an end to the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. I saw an older woman from South Africa, a survivor of domestic violence, sit down to share her experiences with a young woman from Liberia, who had been raped during the years of violence in her own country. I met several indigenous women farmers from Panama, who had left their country for the first time, to travel to New York City in order to voice their needs and concerns at the United Nations. I watched as a young woman from the occupied Palestinian territories, a Kenyan woman now living in New York, and a woman from rural Virginia with a Southern twang and lots of spunk bonded over common struggles and challenges in their diverse communities. Through the many stories I heard, I was able to see the power and truth in God’s promises – that through God’s grace, our struggles and suffering can be transformed into hope.
Ecumenical Women’s opening worship service at the Commission on the Status of Women
During my time at the Commission on the Status of Women, I was invited to read the words of the prophet Hosea through new eyes. In the first week, I participated in a Presbyterian-sponsored side-event, which included a Bible study and testimonies from women living in rural areas in the U.S. and around the world. One of the women who led the study talked about reading the story of Hosea with a group of young girls in a safe home in the Philippines – girls who had previously been trafficked and sold into prostitution. According to the biblical story, God commands the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute named Gomer, as a sign of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness to an unfaithful and wandering people. For these young girls who had been sold into prostitution, the words of God spoken through the prophet Hosea were words of life: “I will make for you a covenant on that day...and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD.”
In the same chapter of Hosea, God tells the people of Israel: “I will make the Valley of Achor [which means ‘suffering’] into a door of hope.” The valley of suffering will become a door of hope. I saw this promise being fulfilled during these two weeks, as I heard countless women share their stories. Voicing stories of struggle and hardship became an opportunity for healing and hope. Voicing stories became a tool for advocacy and change, as we worked to influence governments and promote peace and justice in a broken world. I am grateful for the opportunity to have heard these stories, through my field education internship at the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations. And I am grateful for the important work that this ministry is doing in connecting diverse people with one another and equipping the church to be Christ’s body in the world.
To hear more stories and testimonies from participants in this year’s Commission on the Status of Women, visit the “Swords into Plowshares” blog of the Presbyterian Ministry at the UN:
Or visit Ecumenical Women’s web site at: