Capping two weeks of meetings that drew women from throughout the world, the United Nations' Commission on the Status of Women, or CSW, is calling for stepped-up efforts to empower a largely ignored group — rural women and girls.
In a statement on the last day of the March 12-23 conference, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the head of UN Women, the United Nations' secretariat focused on women and girls, hailed the commission's "agreement on measures to bring substantive equality to women and girls in rural areas [as] a vital step forward."
She noted that during the two weeks of meetings, "[We] have heard clearly from the women and girls themselves what they want: from the rights to own property, to the need for quality infrastructure, to the rights to make decisions about their own bodies and lives."
Mlambo-Ngcuka added, "These agreements are made in the meeting rooms of New York but must take effect in the lives of women and girls we are here to serve."
The outcome of the commission's work at the United Nations in New York — called Agreed Conclusions adopted by Member States — includes calls for reforms to help women and girls. These include eliminating laws that make it difficult for women to have access to land and economic resources; closing "gender gaps" for girls in rural education; and strengthening social services so that women and girls are not disproportionally burdened with domestic work and unpaid family care.
The yearly CSW meetings — this year marked the 62nd annual session — attract thousands of women throughout the world to discuss the themes of gender equality, economic empowerment and social action. But they also serve as a forum for women to explore changes underway initiated by and for women, including work by Catholic sisters' congregations.
Daughter of Wisdom Sr. Jean Quinn, the executive director of UNANIMA International, an UN-based coalition of Catholic congregations and a co-sponsor of a number of events, told GSR at the conclusion of the meetings that she found the theme of rural women and girls "very significant, important and challenging."
"The significance of rural women can hardly be overstated," she said. "They make up over a quarter of the world's population and around 43 percent of the agricultural workforce in developing countries. Women are a sizeable group with a lot of potential, yet at the same time are overlooked and marginalized."
This was the second time Quinn, head of UNANIMA for more than a year, had attended the meetings. She said "stand out" moments included "hearing the stories of women from across the world — bringing their stories from their home places, from villages and cities, corridors of power and street place to the U.N."
"There is life and hope emerging from these conferences when we gather to have life-giving, energizing, and challenging discussions and have time for the difficult conversations we might not have with each in other situations."
Catholic sisters had prominent roles in a number of forums.
One was a March 13 event sponsored by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the U.N., which focused on human trafficking in rural areas — which is not often the focus of anti-trafficking work.
That is because cities may be where many trafficking victims end up, but cities "are normally not where most trafficking victims come from," said Tomasz Grysa, deputy permanent observer of the Holy See's U.N. mission.
Extreme rural poverty fuels the "lies of traffickers who promise [rural women and girls] good work, good food and education in the big cities," he said.
Mely Lenario, a one-time trafficked woman from the Philippines, confirmed that reality. She spoke of her own experiences coming from a struggling family in an impoverished rural area and being persuaded by a woman who invited her and other teenagers to Cebu City, the Philippines' second largest metropolitan area. There the girls, having paid their own way to the urban area, were forced into prostitution.
"I even knelt in front of [the woman] begging her to have pity on me because I was still young, but she insisted that I needed to pay for all the expenses in coming to Cebu," Lenario said.
She spoke of "handlers" who were very strict and cruel. "If we didn't have any customers, they wouldn't allow us to eat. For me, it wasn't easy to leave that situation. I felt hopeless and worthless," she said. "Every night I took drugs not because I liked them, but to stay awake the whole night and not be ashamed in front of my customers. I came to the moment where I thought I had to accept the life that I had."
With the help of a group of priests, Lenario eventually escaped. She found shelter in a safe-house operated by the Good Shepherd Sisters. Lenario is now an advocate for trafficked women, working with the sisters, and is studying to become a social worker.
Such advocacy is sorely needed, said Franciscan Missionary of Mary Sr. Annie Jesus Mary Louis, who has worked in a rural setting for a decade in Chhattisgarh, India. She noted that her area "and so many other rural locations like it are the origins of the sex-trade supply chain."
The reasons are not hard to find, she said.
"The people I serve have very little. They have very little money. The standard of education is very poor. Access to sanitation and healthcare is sparse. They are hundreds of miles from the nearest city. There are no NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] in the vicinity," she said. "Public services are nonexistent. Traffickers know all of this. They know that the parents of children in my area are easily deceived, and sometimes so desperate that they willingly sell their own children."
In her call to action, Louis said that sexual exploitation must be treated "with the same seriousness as other supply chain issues. Let us insist that rural women and girls are protected with at least the same level of investment that is put into labor exploitation."
She added, "Prevention work in areas like mine is almost nonexistent. These families need loving accompaniment. They need opportunities. They need to feel like society cares about them. Yet, where I work, I am almost alone."
That call was affirmed by Mercy Sr. Lynda Dearlove, whose ministry focuses on working with trafficked women in London. "This is an urgent issue," she said. "As I speak, millions are being treated as less than human; exploited in unspeakable ways. As a global community we need to use all means necessary to find ways to help. And, in a particular way, to help rural communities who are particularly vulnerable."
That vulnerability extends in all sorts of ways, said speakers at a March 14 event focused on women as change makers in southern Asia.
In rural India, violence against women is rampant, but "it is hidden inside the four walls of the home," said Indian Sr. Cynthia Mathew, one of two representatives at the U.N. for the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loreto Generalate). "Most of the violence goes unreported and unrecorded in informal or formal institutions."
In working with women in Bihar in northeast India, Mathew sees change, with women themselves becoming "the change makers."
Relating the stories of women who have gone to police and the courts for enforcement of protection laws that are on the books — but rarely enforced — Mathew said increasing number of Dalit, or "untouchable," women, with the backing of advocates like Catholic sisters, are finding courage to take on entrenched legal systems.
"Though there are laws to address the violence against women, it is a constant struggle to use legal mechanisms and get justice. Yet we do not give up," she said. "We keep the battle for justice alive and hope for the best."
[Chris Herlinger is GSR international correspondent. His email address is email@example.com.]
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