PEN San Miguel Delegates Encouraged, Worried by UN Meeting

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By Lucina Kathmann

Two of your local San Miguel PEN members recently got to put on their travelling shoes and fly to New York to represent San Miguel PEN at the UN’s 62nd session of Commission on the Status of Women, held at UN headquarters on March 12–23. What we found there was at times exciting and at other times disheartening.

I, Lucina Kathmann, and Elizabeth Starcevic—both members of San Miguel de Allende’s chapter of PEN International—represented PEN San Miguel at this annual UN event, along with PEN International president Jennifer Clement, who participated in a Commission-sponsored panel entitled “Safe Journalists,” and other PEN representatives from chapters around the world. Other women, who were coming from around the world to inform the Commission on the multifaceted plight of rural women, were not so lucky, thanks to unforeseen consequences of US immigration policy.

The focus of this year’s Commission on the Status of Women was on the condition of rural women and girls. Yet when Elizabeth and I went about looking for these rural women and girls, eager to analyze PEN’s slant on their situation, we found these women in very short supply. Many had been invited, funds had been raised, passports had been granted, and forms had been filled out. But the women themselves did not arrive. In many cases, privileged women from cities were having to talk for them, an old stopgap measure which might be better than nothing, but it definitely puts the lie to this year’s motto, “No woman left behind.” Women experts on unpaid labor, agriculture, and land rights have definitely been left behind.

We know what happened: they didn’t get visas. Last year, women from the seven countries blacklisted by the US administration didn’t get visas. This year, many more women from all over the world were excluded. It does not seem that any region is particularly targeted. The target is rural women from everywhere, and the specific issue cited for denying them access is that many have no bank accounts.

The Commission on the Status of Women meets annually in the UN complex in New York. To participate, the women must be able to enter the US. The US simply does not believe—this year, anyway—that a woman without a bank account plans to return to her country, and thus her visa application is denied. Many of these women are not married, another factor which has been cited in the denial of some applications.

This is a type of vulnerability that the UN never foresaw. Because of the geography of the situation, one single country has the power to impoverish the programs for which perhaps 11,000 NGO representatives traveled to New York. The sessions are still of interest and importance, but they are seriously damaged.

At the same time, there is also a mood of jubilation. The reason is that in many countries, the Me Too movement and other campaigns have generated a wave of protest against sexual harassment that has involved naming names in high places. There have been mammoth women’s marches on every continent. High-profile people in the entertainment in fields such as business and sports have joined in and used their status to raise awareness of problems the CSW has talked about every year since its inception 62 years ago. Assistant Secretary General Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, head of UN Women, said that society may be approaching the “tipping point.” Mlambo-Ngcuka suggested that all of us help keep up the momentum by referring to this tipping point as often as possible.

We PEN delegates will continue to try to join forces with other NGOs worldwide. We will press for improvements in freedom of expression for all women by combating violence against women and all other forms of censorship. We will push for more access to all sorts of education. Meantime we transmit two requests:

1) Send concrete details about any woman who was refused a visa to attend the CSW 62. These cases are being analyzed by two organizations: FEMNET and CIVITAS.

2) Talk and write about this idea of a “tipping point.” I’m not so sure what it is either, but maybe together we can make it happen.

 

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