New York, N.Y. — The United Nations is all manner of things: international crossroads, keeper of hopes and aspirations, nudge on critical issues.
This weekend, for example, the world body commemorates World Health Day, a yearly event — always on April 7 — to recognize the ongoing priorities in global health. That is just one of many days in the year that the U.N. tries to focus on international concerns and challenges. In April alone, there are 19 such days, focusing on autism, malaria, health and safety at work, and more.
I know from covering the U.N. that the global body is also the world's town hall. Last month, for example, the U.N. hosted thousands of women and supportive men who converged on U.N. headquarters in New York March 12-23 for the annual meeting of the global body's Commission on the Status of Women.
It's hard to describe the atmosphere of these two-week events. They are by turns festive, challenging and even exhausting; you cannot possibly take in every event, every forum, every panel discussion on themes related to the challenges women face.
This year's theme focused on ways to improve the lives of rural women and girls, a group that makes up more than a quarter of the world's population but is often ignored despite their many contributions in their communities. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations notes that women make up on average 43 percent of the world's agricultural workforce in developing countries.
Amid all of the goings-on, the U.N. and the affiliated nongovernmental organizations that work there do a good job of welcoming guests. I got to meet and talk with a number of them during the Commission on the Status of Women events.
One was a group of Dominican sisters who came to New York under the aegis of the Dominican Leadership Conference, the nongovernmental organization that represents Dominican sisters at the United Nations.
The group I met — just under a dozen women — included representation of different Dominican congregations from Australia, Paraguay, the Solomon Islands and the United States, as well as a lay associate from Mexico and a Philippine Maryknoll sister based in Tanzania.
The women reveled in their cultural, national and linguistic differences but found community as Catholic sisters and associates.
"The diversity of us is easy to see," said Sr. Roberta Miller from Ohio.
The commonalities, said Sr. Trish Madigan of eastern Australia, include a commitment cherished by the Dominicans: veritas — speaking the truth.
"For Dominicans, that's very important," she said.
What themes from the U.N. forums most moved or stirred the women?
One was the commonality of water scarcity and the influence of multinational corporations on allocation of water resources, said Rosa Sánchez, a Dominican layperson.
"It's not benefiting the rural people," she said. Tied to that challenge is the reality that women do not have access to land or other things they need to improve their lives. "Water, education, land, health services — these are what women need," she said.
Miller noted the ongoing problems of girls not attending school because they have to fetch water for their families and communities, often walking miles at a time.
That's a form of oppression, Sánchez told me: "Women are still not valued. It's still a man's world."
In the midst of such challenges, women face violence at home and the workplace, and "it's everywhere: developed countries, developing countries," said Sr. Mary Ryan from Western Australia.
Women are particularly vulnerable in areas with conflict and war and are often war's silent victims, said Sr. Christin Tomy of Wisconsin.
Sr. Juana Sanabria of Paraguay said she thought it was good so many problems are being discussed and examined at the U.N. But she also felt that in the end, problems probably need to be addressed locally but with global support.
"You need both local and global solutions," she said.
Tied to all of these concerns is climate change, which several members of the Dominican group said is not being made easier by logging and deforestation, which cause flooding and displace people.
"Flooding sweeps everywhere," Sr. Tabiria Tabeaua of the Solomon Islands said of the situation in her country.
"The people who contribute least to climate change are affected the most," Tomy said, noting the particular pressures being put on indigenous peoples.
The visitors and their host at the U.N., Dominican Sr. Margaret Mayce, said that even with all of the challenges facing women, giving women more power — in the church, in government bodies — could begin to solve many of the world's problems.
Women are accustomed to working together, they told me. The example of Catholic sisters working at the grassroots, the women agreed, can provide something of a clue of what the world might look like if women were given more power.
"I don't know if pride is the right word, but I see in our Dominican family [of both women and men] a recognition of women, of valuing women," Sanabria said. "And when it comes to the church, I see the sisters as change agents."
Sánchez agreed, saying in the work she sees in Mexico, grassroots action by Catholic sisters is grounded in love.
"To see their dedication, their love of the women in these areas, to be able to see God's presence in each of them — it's vocation, it's a way of life, and it's the Dominican spirit fighting for truth, for justice," she said.
Fighting for truth and justice undergirded an encounter I had with another group of visitors: a dozen students from Avila University in Kansas City, Missouri, who were accompanied by faculty members Nicole Esquibel and Ken Parsons and hosted by members of the Congregations of St. Joseph nongovernmental organization.
Sr. Justine Gitanjali Senapati asked the students to carry with them the idea "of the inherent dignity of being human"; the need for women "to be at the table"; and the recognition "that gender discrimination is everywhere." She encouraged them to ask, "What is my role in this?"
Two students I spoke to, Zaria Dukes and Ricky Farrell, said their time at the U.N. was gratifying, eye-opening and challenging.
Dukes, 21, felt a particular comfort at a session on the themes of race, gender and climate change, saying that as an African-American woman, she "felt heard."
"The speakers brought hope," she told me. Dukes said she feels strengthened to continue her activism in the areas of climate change and racial justice issues.
Farrell, 23, said forums that had the most impact on him included those dealing with sex trafficking, prostitution and the media. But he also attended sessions on water and food and saw links between struggles in rural areas in the global South and similar challenges in rural America.
"The rural issues are the same: the struggle for water and food," said Farrell, a senior from Troy, Missouri, a town of approximately 10,000 about an hour outside of St. Louis. "People are cut off."
Dukes, a junior from St. Louis, said the interconnections are important.
"What affects China affects the U.S.," she said of a globalized world.
Both Dukes and Farrell said they hope their work and future activism can leave a small imprint on the world.
"I think the generation behind us will be proud of what we've done," Dukes said.
In a world of so many challenges, I hope so.
[Chris Herlinger is GSR international correspondent. His email address is email@example.com.]
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