By Yeabu Josephine Tholley Sierra Leone

The 55th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) theme was: Access and participation of women and girls in education, training, science and technology, including for the promotion of women’s equal access to full employment and decent work.

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is a functional Commission of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women. It is the principal global policy-making body. Every year, representatives of Member States gather at United Nations Headquarters in New York to evaluate progress on gender equality, identify challenges, set global standards and formulate concrete policies to promote gender equality and advancement of women worldwide.

A Call for Application to attend the 55th Session of the UN CSW in New York  was sent by the International Federation of University Women (IFUW) to Sierra Leone Association of University Women (SLAUW) in December last year. Having heard so much about the UN CSW Sessions I was enthusiastic to attend. I applied and I was accepted as one of the delegates. FEMNET finally came to my rescue to fund the trip after I had been turned down by three UN organizations in Sierra Leone. The letter of sponsorship came two weeks before the start of the CSW meeting.

I applied for a US visa online on that day and the only available date for interview was on the 22nd February ,the day I was scheduled according to the bookings made by Rose of FEMNET to start my trip. My passport was sent through my office (Statistics Sierra Leone) to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to speed up the process of the visa. Unfortunately for me, there were three holidays observed during that period and the US embassy was closed for three consecutive days. I attended the visa interview on the 22nd February with my suitcase packed in my car. Finally I was able to travel as scheduled on that same day with a US visa.

I arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York on 23rd February after very long connecting flights from Sierra Leone. I checked in at the St Giles Hotel at night. I called Naisola of FEMNET, and after the greetings and a brief interaction she informed me of the FEMNET meeting at 7:00am, scheduled for the next day.  Four of us met in the Lobby, including Norah (Executive Director) and Naisola, (Advocacy Officer) of FEMNET at the Pod Hotel plus other FEMNET members. I was introduced and quickly acquainted myself with the group.

The meeting was headed by the Chairperson of the Board, Sylvie. The list of NGO Parallel events was read out and members were assigned to at least three meetings to attend. This was the daily routine until the end of the CSW meeting.

The UN CSW 55th meeting was very hectic and interesting .Being my first time to attend, I had to find my way through all the hustling and bustling. The queues to register were long and the entrance to the meetings in the main UN building was very restricted. Tickets were provided for women to gain access to scheduled meetings. Despite the restrictions the meetings I attended were interesting.

The first Parallel event I attended after registration on that day was organized by the Medical Women’s International Association, in the Hardin Room, 11th Floor at the Church Center for the United Nations. The Theme was: Medicine the Pink Collar Profession. The Medical Women’s International Association (MWIA) is an international non-governmental organization (NGO) representing women doctors from all five continents. The Association was founded in 1919 and is therefore one of the oldest professional bodies at the international level. It is non-political, non-sectarian and non-profit making.

After years of planning, fundraising and consultations, U.N. Women was officially launched on Thursday evening, 24th February 2011, with much celebration. Formally known as the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, U.N. Women combines four pre-existing U.N. agencies into one task force that embodies the highest ambitions and aspirations of the drivers of gender equality. From grassroots organizations in far-flung corners of the world, to top-level diplomats, and everyone in-between, U.N. Women was saluted as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put an end to gender discrimination, and all its odious expressions and manifestations, throughout the world. Former Chilean president Dr. Michelle Bachelet is the first Executive Director of U.N. Women.

She gave a speech at the official launch of the UN Women, attended the 1st Round Table of Rolling out of the African Women’s Decade 2011, interacted with Ministers and Experts, held meetings with Women Caucus groups and organizations, chaired a discussion on Maternal Mortality with the new chair of UNFPA, and officials from WHO, UNDP, The Global Fund on Aids, the World Bank and the Geneva Human Rights office and attended other parallel events and meetings. She allowed many women to speak on important issues on behalf of their organizations.

I attended two African Women Caucus meetings during the CSW 55th Session. These meetings were co- organized by FEMENT and other Women organizations. Regular African Women Caucus meetings provided the opportunity to exchange ideas/themes emerging from CSW sessions and NGO events with members reporting on the previous day’s activities. Women also shared their experiences about the information policy at the CSW. During the Caucus, a small committee was set up to analyze the Draft Agreed Conclusions.

I also attended many NGO parallel events in the Church Center. The messages were all centered on the theme:  Access and participation of women and girls in education, training, science and technology, including for the promotion of women’s equal access to full employment and decent work. FEMNET members participated in the NGO parallel events and caucus meetings where they found the real heart of the CSW — in the women from all over the world who came to advocate for their ideas, exchange information and join in urging government to take stands on the topic under discussion.

One of the Parallel events I attended was organized by the Gender and Affirmative Action (GAA) Coalition with the Theme: Elections in Africa: Experience and lessons for increased participation. It took place on the 1st March 2011 in the Nigeria House building. Speakers shared their experiences with participants on the good practices used in their countries to motivate women in politics.

I also attended the1st Round Table on Rolling out of the African Women’s Decade 2011 on the theme:  Health, Maternal Mortality and HIV/AIDS at the Nigerian House. The call for Proposals under the theme was presented by the Director, Women, Gender and Development, Mrs. Litha Musyimi.There was a Ministerial briefing on the implementation of the African Women’s Decade theme.

International Federation Of University Women (IFUW) organized two panels for NGOs, one on Education in conjunction with UNESCO with prestigious speakers from UNESCO, UNFPA and the Ambassador from Bangladesh and a second one on encouraging into Science and Technology in Projects run in conjunction with Governments in France and the UK.

I attended the one on Education which was interesting. The theme was: Advancing Girls’ Secondary Education; Obstacles and opportunity.  The International Federation of University Women (IFUW) is an international, non-profit organization of women graduates. They were founded in 1919 by women who believed in the importance of working together for peace, international understanding and friendship. The membership consisted of women of all ages, cultures, disciplines and professions in more than 120 countries. By the end of my stay in New York, I was completely exhausted, but definitely a productive week in sharing and learning from all the amazing women’s rights advocates and activists present.

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