World Changers Speak Up

by Jaclyn Licht

Tatiana Mukanire (right), an advocate for women like her who have faced sexual violence in Democratic Republic of Congo, greets a fellow CSW attendee after her remarks at a CSW panel. (Jaclyn Licht/UK Mission to the UN)

In the conference rooms of the historic United Nations building in New York last week, dozens of women sat cross-legged on the floor. Elderly and youth alike buzzed with fiery conversations in a multitude of languages. Students snapped selfies with their favorite activists in spare moments before their next event commenced. National songs filled the General Assembly.

Such is the nature of the Commission of the Status of Women (CSW), an annual gathering of thousands of change makers from around the globe focused on promoting gender equality.

The conference is one of the most important moments for the UK Mission to the UN. This year, we welcomed Her Royal Highness the Countess of Wessex, as well as Lord (Tariq) Ahmad of Wimbeldon, the head of the delegation. Both spoke assertively on topics such as the prevention of sexual violence in conflict, widows’ rights, and youth empowerment.

As photographer for the UK Mission, I’ve been whizzing around the UN, the UK’s office, and other organisations’ headquarters to capture the unique tone of each discussion and to highlight the role the UK plays in empowering women and protecting human rights.

While I snap photos, I keep note of the most poignant or surprising remarks made by the women who are working on these issues each day. Here are a few:

“As I suggested to an all-male board…if all the seats at the table are full, you just need to pull up an extra chair.”

HRH Countess of Wessex in a meeting with UK students attending CSW. (Jaclyn Licht/UK Mission to the UN)

HRH Countess of Wessex may have been a newcomer to CSW this year, but she is well versed in the issues of discrimination women face in the workplace. The Countess works extensively in philanthropic projects across the world, which expose her to the daily challenges faced by organisations in the UK and around the globe. In both her informal conversation with a group of young girls and in her public address to the General Assembly, she reiterated this fierce approach to equality in the workplace. There is no excuse for women to not be a part of decision-making.

“We can’t allow a journalist culture that just says, ‘Man up.’”

Ana Kasparian (center), of Young Turks media network, listens to Talia Lavin (right), a freelance journalist, at UN side event on press freedom in the digital age. (Jaclyn Licht/UK Mission to the UN)

Media freedom is a priority for the UK. The Foreign Office has proclaimed that a “free, open, peaceful and secure internet is integral to the wider freedom of expression.” As such, journalists — online and offline — must be protected.

Women journalists, as made clear at “Journalism and the Empowerment of Women: New Challenges in the Digital Age,” face a great deal of online harrassment. In the digital age, attacks on women are terrifyingly personal. The panel included the founder of the French #MeToo movement, heads of online publications and freelance journalists. They all detailed how their critics were able to publicly target, shame and threaten them in some form. The women shared examples of how aggressors posted doctored images online, sent private threatening messages, or even openly threatened the lives of the women and their families.

Talia Lavin, a freelance journalist, spoke candidly about the hate speech she faces. In spite of such personal attacks, she refutes the notion of ignoring the backlash. She — along with all of the panelists — asserted that not only are they steadfast in their determination to make their perspectives on global affairs known, but they will continue to speak out against discrimination towards women in journalism.

“Peace isn’t the absence of visible injustice.”

From left: Ariana Afsar, actress and activist; Amanda Nguyen, Founder/CEO of RISE; Stephen Hickey, UK Political Coordinator at the UN; and Jessica Long, Accenture. (Jaclyn Licht/UK Mission to the UN)

Amanda Nguyen is on a mission to codify sexual assault survivors’ rights into law around the globe. The UK Mission hosted a brainstorming meeting with her organisation, RISE, the Argentinian Mission, and several activists from women’s rights groups. Throughout the discussion, it became clear that while dialogue at the UN is a necessary means of holding Member States accountable to addressing sexual assault, such dialogue and laws must translate into direct action. It is important that world leaders agree to condemn sexual assault, but how do we protect those who become victims or assist healthcare providers who care for them? Achieving legal justice is paramount, but until there are resources readily available for women to address violence, a complete peace will not be achieved.

In a space typically dominated by ambassadors and world leaders, civil society voices came first at the UN these past two weeks. Those who face gender-related challenges every day were the ones sitting on the panels and passionately calling for change that seeps from the top to the ground level. As a result, leaders — even royalty — take note. Collaboration is crucial, and CSW is a ripe place to induce it.

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