UN Commission on the Status of Women: “The Essentials: Food, Water, Women and Justice”

One of the most emotionally intense sessions I attended at the UN Commission on the Status of Women was entitled “The Essentials: Food, Water, Women and Justice.” Panelists and respondents expressed anger and frustration over all the suffering women and others still experience from hunger, poverty, injustice, and environmental devastation. Though some participants in this session felt uncomfortable with the anger voiced, others validated this emotion. One woman responded, “We as women need to honor our passion and emotion, and not apologize for our anger because it shows the strength of our convictions.” Another woman said that she has reframed the saying “hold it together.” Clasping hands with the women on either side of her, she said, “When I say ‘hold it together,’ I don’t mean hold back or repress feelings; to me “hold it together” means to join hand in hand with one another to work for change.” Others agreed that our anger needs to be channeled to make change happen right now. As one person said, “Life needs what women know and feel.”

This session focused on work toward these 2 UN Millennium Development Goals: to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; to ensure environmental sustainability. Participants explored transformed paradigms as well as pragmatic solutions and applications, including local growing, permaculture, safe seeds, and reframing agriculture as ecosystem, as recommended in the recent UN Commission on Trade and Development report “Wake Up Before It’s Too Late.” International perspectives came from panelists Dr. Pam Rajput, Rev. Marta Benavides, Jim Sniffen, and Nina Simons.

Dr. Pam Rajput

Dr. Pam Rajput, Chairperson of India’s High Level Commission on the Status of Women, is a pioneering women’s rights activist and an academic who has been engaged in gender equality initiatives since the 1970s both in India and internationally. She is Head of the Department of Political Science and founder and Director of the Centre for Women’s Studies and Development at Panjab University. She helped organize and was the first Speaker of the first ever women’s parliament that brought together over 500 women leaders from every part of India to work toward “an equalitarian and egalitarian society.”

In her presentation at the UN session I attended, Dr. Rajput talked about creating the women’s parliament in India so that women’s voices will be heard. This women’s parliament paved the way for a manifesto as a feminist response to the sexist, patronizing question often asked, “What do women want?” Highlights of the manifesto are that women want zero tolerance for perpetrators of domestic abuse, increased representation of women in government leadership, gender sensitization for boys as a compulsory part of school curriculum, increased percentage of women police personnel, 24/7 access to clean water for all people, economic justice, increased incentives and support for girls to be educated in all fields, well-funded and long-term public education programs to transform the culture of patriarchy and gender-based discrimination. As I listened to Dr. Rajput talk about what women in India want, I remembered what I’d heard Dr. Abeer Hassoun say at the UN session on religion and culture about women’s problems being universal. I sat there thinking that I wanted the same things that the women in India listed that they want, and that I’d heard other US women and women from other countries say they want these same things. We want girls and women to experience full equality and sacred value. We want peace and human rights for all people. We want women’s rights which are human rights. Dr. Rajput pointed out that 97 million people lack the basic human essentials of adequate water and food. She challenged all of us to view the whole world as a village of people who care for one another instead of using one another for profit. “It’s not a matter of profit, “she said. “Your sisters are my sisters.”

Marta Benavides

At this UN session Rev. Marta Benavides presented insights on global food justice, peace, and sustainability. An ordained American Baptist minister, theologian, permaculturist, educator, and artist, Rev. Benavides is one of the surviving activists from the original group of human rights and peace advocates in El Salvador who began their work during the 1970s in the rising climate of repression. A leader of an ecumenical revolution focused on bringing peace to her country, she has been drawing people from many sectors—politics, the arts, law enforcement, agriculture and food security, environment, religion, and labor—together to defend human rights and develop a culture of peace. She has dedicated her life to rebuilding communities devastated by war and has brought renewal, both figurative and literal, to formerly scorched earth. She has participated in various UN initiatives including the Commission for Social Development,  Commission for Sustainable Development, Education for Sustainability, Decade for a Culture of Peace, and Decade of Non-Violence. Rev. Benavides founded the International Institute for Cooperation Amongst Peoples, which promotes the values and practices of a culture of peace. She travels widely conducting workshops on sustainable agriculture, human rights, and the prevention of community and family violence.

At this UN session on the essentials, I heard Rev. Benavides express frustration and anger that all her social justice activism and that of so many others hasn’t made more of a difference, that women and many others still suffer greatly from the lack of essential food and water and other basic human rights. With passion she said: “I’m fed up with talk! I want action! I’m tired of being fed up! The rich have taken land away from people.” In an earlier interview, Rev. Benavides also expressed her urgent desire for change: “We are at a point in history where we must decide to stop destroying that which guarantees life on the planet if we are to continue living as humanity. The various crises that we and all nations have faced in the last few years—crises which continue to challenge each nation and the whole world—point to a need for drastic change. The financial and economic crises have forced us to look with critical eyes at the conditions and quality of life of people everywhere. We also need to look at the challenges to sustainability and peace presented by the production and consumption patterns of the nations that waste and exploit the majority of the world’s resources. The energy crisis continues to press us for the need to have solar power and other non-fossil fuel types of energy. We are facing very dangerous times. As global citizens, we need to read the signs of the times and decide to govern ourselves, to govern our governments and industries that continue to pillage nature and people.”

Jim Sniffen

Another panelist at the UN session was Jim Sniffen, Program Officer in the New York Office of the United Nations Environment Program. He has served as a spokesman for several major international environmental conferences on subjects ranging from marine pollution to biodiversity conservation to ozone depletion.

Mr. Sniffen spoke on the UN Environment Program’s Think, Eat, Save Initiative. The purpose of this initiative is to reduce food loss and waste along the entire chain of food production and consumption. He explained this campaign that specifically targets food wasted by consumers, retailers, and the hospitality industry: “Simple actions by consumers and food retailers can dramatically cut the 1.3 billion tons of food lost or wasted each year and help shape a sustainable future. The Think, Eat, Save Initiative aims to accelerate action and provide a global vision and information-sharing portal for diverse initiatives currently underway around the world. Worldwide, about one-third of all food produced gets lost or wasted in food production and consumption systems. Food loss occurs mostly at the production stages—harvesting, processing and distribution—while food waste typically takes place at the retailer and consumer end of the food-supply chain. The global food system also has profound implications for the environment: more than 20 per cent of all cultivated land, 30 per cent of forests, and 10 per cent of grasslands are undergoing degradation; globally 9 per cent of the freshwater resources are withdrawn, 70 per cent of this by irrigated agriculture; agriculture and land use changes like deforestation contribute to more than 30 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Consumers can help reduce food waste and environmental impact of this waste by avoiding buying more food than needed; buying fruits and vegetables that may be thrown out because their size, shape, or color are deemed not ‘right’; freezing food; requesting smaller portions at restaurants; eating leftovers; composting food; donating spare food to local food banks, soup kitchens, and shelters. Retailers can work with their suppliers to reduce waste, offer discounts for near-expiration items, redesign product displays with less excess, standardize labeling, and increase food donations. Restaurants can limit menu choices and introduce flexible portioning.”

Nina Simons

Nina Simons was another panelist at this UN session on the essentials and their connection to gender justice. She is the co-founder of Bioneers, a gathering of social and scientific innovators who focus on furthering a cooperative global culture while fostering sustainability and collaboration, and she has been one of the leaders of Bioneers for 23 years. She is co-editor of Moonrise: The Power of Women Leading from the Heart and co-founder of Cultivating Women’s Leadership trainings. In her work she focuses on the interconnectedness of gender equality, food security, water issues, sustainability, and social justice.

At the UN session Nina Simons commented on the need for the “feminine” principle in the world. She called for a transformation of the stereotypical binary “masculine” and “feminine” division, calling for a more human style of leadership that includes those traits that have been traditionally labeled and disparaged as “feminine,” traits like collaboration, compassion, emotional sensitivity, and peacemaking. “It’s not just about women, but about the feminine principle,” she said. “It’s not just enough to have more skirts in the board room, but to change the legacy of patriarchy. There is a gross imbalance between the masculine and feminine principles.” Ms. Simons quoted Gandhi’s saying that he wanted to “be more womanly,” and encouraged women to claim leadership: “Women too often give away power because of our conditioning. What if we invested all our energy in what we really want, instead of working to fight off negativity that comes from gender injustice. What if we invested our energy to work for a world where there is adequate food and clean water for all. What if we worked for a world where we don’t have to compromise our emotions.” A young woman responded: “Yes, there is a great imbalance between the masculine and feminine. We need a paradigm shift. We need to change from the patriarchal paradigm.” An indigenous grandmother responded: “We need to bring back values of reverence and gratitude, and to send positive energy for food and water and for the flourishing of all human beings and all living beings.”

This UN session ended on the hopeful note that change is happening from the bottom up; change is happening in First Nations communities, in local communities, in faith communities.


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