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PC(USA) ministry staff deepen understanding of global women’s issues at UN event

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Hunger Program staff attend UN Commission on the Status of Women

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — When the 65th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women convened in March, the Presbyterian delegation included women from churches and mid councils from around the country, leaders from the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, and Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries.

There were also two staff from the PC(USA)’s Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries attending to broaden their perspectives on international work they do on issues such as disaster relief, hunger, environmental justice and human rights.

Dayna Oliver with colleagues in Nepal in 2019. (Photo by Cameron Stevens)

“It provided a deeper understanding of the various issues that women are facing,” said Dayna Oliver, Associate for International Program Administration for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA). “Listening to women from around the world share their experiences and speak about the work that they are doing was helpful, because I was able to identify people and organizations I’d like to connect with to learn more about their work and see how PDA might be able to partner with them to do that work.”

Oliver was scheduled to attend the 2020 Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which was canceled shortly before it was supposed to start due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s CSW was held in a virtual format due to the continuing pandemic.

Like Oliver, Eileen Schuhmann, Mission Specialist for International Hunger Concerns for the Presbyterian Hunger Program (PHP), had her first encounter with CSW in the virtual format.

“It was an opportunity for me to connect to spaces that I haven’t been in recently, and remind me that no, we’re not the only ones out there working in our little corner on these issues,” Schuhmann said. “You know, there are thousands and thousands of people around the world that are working on these issues, and people are risking their lives. I was encouraged by the bravery of so many women, and the solidarity. It gave me renewed energy.”

PHP also invited a few international grant partners to join the CSW conference. Aneth Mbame, who attended on behalf of RELUFA in Cameroon, said, “I must say it was really an amazing experience and I really enjoyed the 14 days I spent with fellow women from different parts of the world. I heard and learned from great experiences shared by women on gender violence and the fight women are putting up to end gender-based violence and put women at the forefront of decision-making in public life.”

Both Oliver and Schuhmann said the experience reaffirmed the work they are doing but also opened them up to new information and ideas.

“In one session, panelists shared the challenges many women face in regards to parenting of children, divorce and domestic violence and how, in many contexts, there are no support systems for women who are involved in unhealthy domestic partnerships” Oliver said, recalling some sessions she attended. “I am grateful for the brave women who were willing to share those stories. Too often we take for granted what we perceive to be the small things in life, unaware of the challenges that many people face on a daily basis.”

Eileen Schuhmann (Contributed photo)

Schuhmann pointed to land rights for widows as a major issue, even in countries where laws have changed to allow women to inherit land. Implementation and enforcement of those laws remain a challenge due to social norms. Oliver said she was encouraged to look for more opportunities to support women, particularly through centering women’s organizations and enterprises in PDA’s work.

“It also made me think that PHP could do a better job of centering women’s issues more within our work, centering more the impacts of issues on women and centering women’s leadership and how women are showing up,” Schuhmann said.

She said she was particularly struck by the leadership role many women and women’s groups are taking in numerous issues and conflicts around the world. It was clear that from war to extractive industries to climate change, women suffer disproportionate impacts. Women are speaking up, she said, despite the risks of harassment, attacks on reputation, and violence.

“A lot of women may be pushed out of their activism just due to the fear of what could happen to their families,” Schuhmann said. “A Kenyan environmental activist talked about how her son was on his way to school and was confronted and intimidated by someone who was most likely sent by a mining company.”

Both of the Presbyterian national office staff said they enjoyed the opportunity to interact with Presbyterians from across the country, particularly members of Presbyterian Women, which always brings a delegation to CSW. But interaction was limited, both with Presbyterians and the broader commission attendees and presenters, due to the virtual format. Schuhmann and Oliver said they would welcome a chance to return to CSW when it is in person, particularly for the opportunity to make connections outside of meetings and presentations.

“There really wasn’t space or opportunity for you to be able to gather and talk freely and just debrief and digest some of the stuff that you heard,” Oliver said. “So that, to me, was a challenge.”

The UN hopes to return to a live Commission on the Status of Women in 2022.

The Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and the Presbyterian Hunger Program are Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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