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A Day at the UN: Changing Myself, Changing the World

May 01, 2018

Monday, April 23, 9:30 AM, the corner of 46 Street and 1st Avenue, NYC:

The flags of all 193 UN member nations lazily billowed in the early morning breeze as I stood in front of the UN visitor’s entrance. My classmates gathered around, some languidly sipping their coffee, others reviewing their notes and research one last time. We’d been meticulously preparing for this day for months. We were ready.

I was a student in the legal seminar Women, Peace, and Security this semester taught by Dean of International Affairs Rangita de Silva de Alwis. Under Dean de Silva de Alwis’ comprehensive instruction the seminar was an intensive four months of research, analysis, discussion and debate of the merits and drawbacks of the preeminent international documents that form the skeleton of women’s legal rights: UN Security Council resolution 1325, the CEDAW, the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as a number of post-conflict constitutions and various domestic laws of other states.

It is a timely issue of resonance and consequence, the confluence of a class of committed students and an engaging Professor of unparalleled expertise. Our vigorous classroom discussions sounded more like policy debates. We represented a handful of different countries and states, a global array of religious, cultural, and economic backgrounds. More like a weekly conference than a class, we spent our two hours every Tuesday afternoon in friendly arguments— was it enough to have women at the table, or have people been ignoring a critical variable in the equation, having the right women at the table? And if that is the case, then how do we ensure women in the international community were prepared to lead? And is the top-down approach to securing women’s rights effective, or is that method only paying lip-service to the women living in rural villages who are legally barred from accessing capital to run a business and from attaining a passport without a male guardian’s permission?

This was the backdrop to our research and UN presentations: vibrant discussions, dynamic debate, various cultural perspectives. We chose our topics, ranging from citizenship rights, access to birth control, transnational justice, migration, and education, and analyzed the legal structures and rights women have in Saudi Arabia, Timor Leste, Sierra Leone, Spain, Northern Ireland, China, and Myanmar. These issues are not only fundamentally important to the lives of women in these countries—they are the moral issues of our time and by making the choice to research them, critically analyze them, and present them to the UN we assumed the responsibility to properly fight for them before a body of global citizens with the power to act.

And then, it was 9:30 am, Monday, April 23.

We arrived at the UN visitor’s entrance, coffee and notes in hand, ready for our meetings. We were scheduled to present to a representative from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, followed by a meeting with UN Women. Surrounded by people running left and right, snippets of conversation in 30 different languages reaching our ears, we all smiled at each other— we were in our element, we were ready to change the world.

“Women leaders aren’t enough in the post-conflict setting if there are no underlying institutional reforms to accompany their ascent to power. Advancements for gender equality are too easily reversed, as are the laws they implement into their state’s legal code.”

“The Rohingya story emphasizes that citizenship surpasses the issue of identity, and goes to the very heart of peace and security. Not being recognized as having citizenship is conflict’s most powerful weapon, and it continues to propagate globally.”

“Vision 2030 and the SDG goals have an unnerving similarity. By making sure these goals develop correctly, the UN can help set a climate where Saudi women can propel themselves into real positions of power and decision making, thereby transforming the state’s cultural and political ecosystem, and ensuring Saudi Arabia’s place as an inclusive society with the ability and real potential to reshape the Middle Eastern landscape.”

These are just some of the many critical issues we championed before the UN. We spent months learning from each other, preparing for this morning. But nothing can prepare you for the moment your colleagues discuss real critical policy issues at the UN, making cases for new security council resolutions guaranteeing equal education for men and women, or inspections into virginity testing in the Middle East. My colleagues were poised and articulate, they weren’t intimidated by the environment or stature of the audience. When Antonio, the delegate from the OHCHR, asked how effective a UN resolution would be without an accompanying movement on the ground, my classmate confidently answered that you must start somewhere. Our audience was engaged. They asked probing questions, absorbed in the policy discussions, and gave us advice to help strengthen our research. They also firmly requested a copy of our reports: “this needs to be published”, Pablo, at UN Women insisted. “This research is cutting edge, thoughtful and necessary. You must publish it, turn it into an article or blog post”. 

Nations shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war any more”. When I arrived at the UN that morning, the words etched into the Isaiah wall were glowing in the morning sun. We spent the semester studying the women, peace and security policy platform. We read reports and studied the data. My colleagues and I understand that when women are empowered, when women serve in leadership positions, when women have a seat at the table and are instrumental in crafting peace agreements, peace is sustainable and war is defeated. We learned how empowering women, granting women their right to equal citizenship, ensures a less corrupt society with a stronger economy and a proclivity for peace. We spent the morning of April 23 presenting research at the UN that will bring women closer to becoming equal citizens, and the world closer to the biblical promise etched on the Isaiah wall outside the UN.

Our presentations at the UN were our indoctrination into the global compact to reclaim human rights. They helped us realize that it is not enough to just be a woman at the table; we have a responsibility to a larger community, to champion the issues, to fight for their implementation and protection. A call to action, this day will remain with all of us as we embark on life’s journey through law firms and boardrooms, the public and private sector.

On April 23, armed with the skills and knowledge I learned during the Spring 2018 semester I presented my research at the UN. Rarely can you point to a moment in your life, and definitively and confidently say “that’s the moment everything changed”. But that day, surrounded by a brigade of passionate and forward-thinking women, is the day I took my first step down the path to change the world.

 

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Comments from Students on the Power of the Seminar & UN Presentations

“It was an incredible opportunity to present our research at the UN! It was truly an unparalleled feeling of excitement and honor to be able to have a seat at the table and to share our insights with those who are at the forefront of action.

We came away from the seminar with a more critical eye when reading international norms and analyzing states’ practices - a key driving force for future progress. I would best describe my experience as analogous to a rubber band - the first few weeks of laying out the groundwork for international women’s rights and peace and security stretched and expanded my knowledge to a large degree. Then, over the course of the weeks that followed, my knowledge continued to stretch and expand each time, creating connections with broader security implications and issues that spanned multiple cultures and regions.”

- Karin Shmulevich, L’19

“Within the first weeks of the course, I knew that it would have a lasting impression on me. I even proposed that classes like it should be a part of the required curriculum at all law schools to former Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, during her visit to Penn Law. The intellectual intensity of your seminar has filled me with pride and confidence in my ability to serve as a lawyer and policy maker. Because of this course, I had the opportunity to facilitate a discussion with Kenyan human rights lawyer, Maina Kiai; was able to realize my dream of being an advocate at the UN; and to finally make sense of my law school experience.”

- Clark Edmond, L’19

“The course enriched my understanding not just of women’s rights, but of human rights and peace & security generally.   This seminar engaged us on a deeper intellectual level, and this was deeply refreshing.”

- Allyson Reynolds, L’19