I was six years old and in Primary 2 when Hillary Clinton gave her famous speech on women’s rights being human rights in Beijing in 1995.
Almost 10 years later, I moved to rural China. I lived with an Eritrean girl from London, whose Dad worked for the United Nations in the Middle East. It was in China I became passionate about human rights. I was blown away by the strength of the Chinese women I met, the stories of women and conflict in Africa and challenges diaspora women and girls face in the United Kingdom. I wish I had known about the Beijing conference; I wish I had been taught about feminism and the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at school.
I came home to study and learn more about human rights. I dreamed of a career that would take me to the UN one day.
In 2011 I graduated feeling a little defeated after struggling with stress, failing a UN Law class and being told by my Professor that I had no chance of the career I wanted so badly. I made a decision to prove him wrong.
I found work in India and Ethiopia. I worked with too many inspiring people to list. Last month I was invited, by one of the leading women’s rights figures in India, to give a speech at the UN on my work on human rights.
We need to involve more young women in international politics and in all decision-making.
As a YWCA delegate at CSW you meet others who share similar passions. There is an opportunity to lobby some of the world’s most influential people and learn first hand about issues facing women in other countries. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard young women describe this as a “life-changing” experience.
However, it’s not all rosy at CSW. At a cocktail reception with the UK Ambassador, I had the misfortune of someone saying to me “You need to learn more about the UN before you open your mouth.” In a meeting with the UK mission, I raised the issue of having young women and more diversity on the official delegation. I was told, “We’ve weighed up the pros and cons. It wasn’t the policy of the last Government, it’s certainly not the policy of this Government and good luck with the future Government.”
At an “intergenerational dialogue” event hosted by UN Women, out of all the speakers between 9.30am – 6pm only two were young women. The paintings that hang in main UN corridor are of men because in over 77 years there has never been a woman Secretary General.
The daily UK Mission / NGO meetings are a good example of what needs to change.
- There were more men than women of colour in those meetings.
- There were more men than women with disabilities.
- There were more men than transgender women.
- There were more white, cisgender women from South of England aged over 60 and 70 than anyone else in the room.
- Voices from less privileged backgrounds were missing.
In order for real change to take place, and fast, we need to be proactive and hold our governments accountable for making these spaces inclusive of all women. Given that the idea behind CSW is to empower and protect women and girls, I was disappointed to learn that so many are not a meaningful part of the decision-making process.
The good news is that World YWCA made history at CSW59. We held the first ever Young Women & Girls Forum in partnership with UN Women. Artwork from the day now features at UN Headquarters. A constant reminder of the future we want.
I am privileged to have had the opportunities I have had, but not all women are in the same position. I’d love to attend CSW with a truly diverse, intergenerational delegation from Scotland in future. Following youth engagement in our independence referendum, with a woman First Minister and gender-balanced Cabinet, there here has never been a bigger appetite for a seat at the decision making table amongst young Scots.
Young women can and will change the face of international politics and development over the next 20 years, just as women before us did in Beijing in 1995.
My message to young women is to ignore the voices that say you can’t. We can. Women and girls can be whoever we want to be and do whatever we want to do. I hope you’ll choose to join us. Together we can motivate those in power to actively engage younger and more diverse voices in all decision-making so that no person is left behind.
This is an excerpt from my speech at the Scottish Parliament on 1 April 2015. A big thank you to Engender for the opportunity.