Unlearning Eurocentrism at UN women's commission

This article appears in the Notes from the Field feature series. View the full series.
A marble memorial by Rodney Leon honoring the victims of the transatlantic slave trade sits outside the entrance to the United Nations Headquarters. The full engraved text reads: "Acknowledge the tragedy, consider the legacy, lest we forget." (Adele McKiernan)

St. Louis, Missouri — Notes from the Field includes reports from young people volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015. This is our ninth round of bloggers: Samantha Wirth is the public policy fellow for Good Shepherd Services in New York City and Adele McKiernan is a Loretto Volunteer at Missouri Health Care for All in St. Louis.

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I was fortunate enough to attend CSW63 last week in New York City. CSW, the Commission on the Status of Women, was established in 1946 as the primary United Nations body dedicated solely to the promotion of global gender equality. Each year, U.N. member states and civil society nongovernmental organizations meet at U.N. headquarters in New York City to discuss global goals, progress and setbacks for women's social, political and economic rights around the world.

The Loretto Community has had consultative status at the U.N. for over 20 years, which means Loretto Volunteers are able to travel to New York to participate in these conversations. This year, the theme was social protection systems, access to public services, and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

Because I studied world history and liberal arts in college and now focus on health care justice as a community organizer in St. Louis, I am familiar with America's contentious relationship with social protection systems, and I didn't expect the United States to play a leading role in the conversations, especially considering current national leadership.

However, I attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an institution that is more than 80 percent white, demographics that closely match my Massachusetts hometown. I see around and within me the ways in which white leftist environments develop a particular social justice lens, one that is self-deprecating yet still determined to keep whiteness central in conversations about justice. So in the back of my mind, I expected Scandinavian countries to have especially resourceful strategies for combating gender inequality.

But the prominent voices I heard at Commission on the Status of Women came from Femnet, a pan-African feminist network; Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era, or DAWN, an organization of feminists in the economic South; and countries such as Uruguay, whose minister of care spoke at length and with great enthusiasm about their comprehensive, four-pillar care model.

At a roundtable at CSW63 called "Women, Business, and the Law," the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Bank, and a representative from Lebanon discuss sustainable development goal No. 5 (gender equity) and a study done on the progress made by member states. (Adele McKiernan)

Early in the week, I went to a Finland-hosted panel on gender equity for mothers that began, disappointingly, with a photograph of Finland's "father of maternal health." Later that day, a statistician at the OECD Development Centre from the Caribbean named Gaëlle Ferrant said something that should go without saying but that I needed to hear at that exact moment: "Just because you live in a Nordic country doesn't mean your rights are protected, and just because you live in South America doesn't mean you don't have best practices to share."

Of course this is true, but when Western rhetoric repeatedly emphasizes the hierarchy of developing (formerly or presently colonized) and developed (formerly or presently colonizer) countries, it can be hard to break out of a Eurocentric worldview.

But in reality, the United States, which still considers itself the bastion of modern Western progress, has broken health care and social security systems, which are being cut annually to fund military spending and tax breaks for the wealthy. White nationalism is rising steadily all over Europe. Meanwhile, as I heard at CSW63, Uganda has implemented a policy that says every single request for money from the government must prove the funds will advance gender equity, and Zambia is focusing on social protection and psychosocial support for mothers in the first 1,000 days of their child's life.

"It is women crushed at the bottom of the heap that drive global progress, because the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house," Crystal Simeoni, head of advocacy at Femnet, said in a panel on care systems and social protection models, paraphrasing poet Audre Lorde.

"Non-Violence," a bronze sculpture by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd made after the murder of John Lennon. One of 31 copies around the world, it is also located by the entrance to the U.N. Headquarters, near Leon's memorial. (Adele McKiernan)

"We do not have to look to the West," she added.

And why would they?

In fact, the main U.S. contribution to the Commission on the Status of Women many leaders drew attention to was the unprecedented denial of visas of women coming primarily from Islamic countries in the Middle East and Africa. The reach of these xenophobic policies struck me during a moment of silence for a presenter who was barred entry to the country where U.N. Headquarters flies her country's flag on its pristine lawn, facing Trump Tower. Though she wasn't physically present to speak at CSW, her absence spoke volumes.

I wondered, under an administration that systematically dictates the exclusion of people from certain countries and not others, what qualifies me, as a beneficiary of that system, to participate in these conversations? Can I really separate myself from the country that provides me with privilege and comfort at the expense of so many others?

Attendees of CSW63 sit in an overflow room to listen in on a town hall with the U.N. secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, in which he answered questions from women about what the U.N. is doing for issues in their countries. I was impressed by his willingness to admit to areas in which the U.N. has not worked enough, such as the intersection of disability rights and gender equality. (Adele McKiernan)

Of course not. The reckoning and unlearning that is my responsibility as a white American is part of who I am. While much of CSW held a sense of international cooperation and inclusion, there were many moments over the week when I felt lonely and existentially stretched to capacity. I rarely felt comfortable.

But these are the external conditions under which we change. Pressure, new information and interactions with people who have had different life experiences are needed to activate internal capacities for growth. And I do have within me forces that can counteract American imperialism. Humility and self-awareness are countercultural in American society, so identifying these within ourselves and the people we associate with makes it more possible to identify an internal compass and find a voice that can speak truth to power.

Emily Dickinson, an American transcendentalist poet I grew up reading, wrote, "The brain is wider than the sky." I have come back to that line often as a reminder that curiosity and imagination, too, have the power to overtake our external circumstances, that our minds can be stretched to form dreams for a world as it should be. I am the product of the sky — the physical makeup of my environment — but I also have in me the ability to transcend these cultural forces for a wider perception of justice that sheds American exceptionalism and entrenched white supremacy and listens and responds without centering the self.

My task after experiences like CSW should not be to erase white voices like Dickinson's from my cultural framework and hurriedly replace them with those of people from the global south. That would be counterproductive and appropriative. I must rather consciously revisit the stories of my upbringing and consider my perspectives on the present moment, continuously questioning narratives that do not seem to serve an expansive, creative and humble approach to social justice.

[Adele McKiernan is a Loretto Volunteer in St. Louis working at Missouri Health Care for All as an Organizing Fellow.]