Colorful scarves, handbags and headdresses filled the room of nearly 100 women, with a few men in between, at the Church Center for the United Nations (CCUN) as Helen Wangusa, Anglican Observer to the United Nations, spoke about her personal reasons for being involved in advocacy.
"It's my witness," Wangusa, a Uganda native, opened her talk with. "It's my way of witnessing to what I believe, it's my way of witnessing to the mandate that I have been given."
Following a reading from the book of Jeremiah 22:13-16, Wangusa went on to say that, "Not everybody can access power, not everybody can access people to make decisions, so those of us who have such access - it would be unfortunate if we don't maximize on such opportunities."
Wangusa was one of several speakers invited to an all-day orientation on Saturday hosted by New York-based coalition Ecumenical Women (EW), which included talks from Fulata Mbano Moyo, World Council of Churches (WCC) Program Executive on Women in Church and Society; and Mary Roodkowsky, principal ethics adviser for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
The orientation was held in preparation for the Ecumenical Women's advocacy work at the 54th session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which runs from Mar. 1-12 in New York City.
According to Elizabeth Lee, United Nations Liaison Office for the WCC, the CSW is a "dynamic opportunity" where "the ecumenical spirit comes alive, bringing together women from different generations, cultures, and faith traditions who are able to work together creatively to advance women's rights and to worship together."
"We do it not just for the opportunity to be a faith voice throughout the CSW, but to learn and claim things we can take home, to continue to be a voice for full participation of women as we go back to our home places as well," noted the Rev. Anne Tiemeyer, prrogram director for Women's Ministries for the National Council of Churches (NCC) U.S.A.
This year's CSW session will focus on a 15-year review of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which was adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Sept. 1995 by 189 U.N. member states.
The platform, considered by many to be the most comprehensive document formed about women's rights, was a reported influence in the formation of the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals (MDG's) and includes 12 strategic objectives and actions for addressing women's issues and gender inequalities.
Ecumenical Women has chosen to focus their advocacy efforts this year on three areas in the platform, including ending impunity for perpetrators of violence against women, establishing economic justice for women –especially in light of the global financial crisis – and transforming leadership to include more women in decision making positions.
The group's advocacy work will go in tandem with a statement drafted by its members and affiliates, which will be reviewed as an official document at the CSW conference.
"Genuinely working together ecumenically means taking the time to really hear all the voices, and really go through the needed processes," said Christine Housel, global project manager for Geneva-based World Student Christian Federation (WSCF), about drafting the statement. "We're all so stretched in our time, and we all have so much to do even within our own communities, but really listening to each other and really coming to consensus….is what we commit to by working together as ecumenical women."
Regarding the role of faith at the United Nations, Housel said, "Our advocacy guide is titled Faith at the U.N., Gender in the Church, so this is a core part of our vision. It's saying that people of faith and issues of faith actually have a role at the U.N., and we need to be able to flesh that out and help [the U.N.] realize that those can be positive and a real contribution to them."
"I think a lot of people in the U.N are becoming more aware of the importance of partnering with people in faith communities, because they're looking for positive partners," Housel continued. "They recognize Ecumenical Women as one of the groups providing those opportunities, and so our goal is to just spread our influence in both breadth and depth."
Signatory groups on the EW's written statement include the Association of Presbyterian Women Aotearoa New Zealand; Church Women United; Global Action on Aging; Lutheran World Federation; Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); The Salvation Army; United Methodist Church, General Board of Church & Society; World Conference of Religion for Peace; World Federation of Methodist and Uniting Church Women; The World Student Christian Federation; and the World Young Women's Christian Association.
The EW's orientation was the first of several events the group will be hosting during the CSW conference, which is expected to draw thousands of women internationally throughout its 12-day span.
Over 40 side events will be held by the larger faith community, including lectures, workshops, training events, and daily chapel services, which will begin at 8 a.m. each weekday at the CCUN.
A commemorative meeting of the fifteenth anniversary of the Beijing Platform will be held on Mar. 2 by the U.N. General Assembly.