Commission on the Status of Women - The Status of Women Starts with the Status of Girls

The theme of the United Nations (UN) 62nd Commission on the Status of Women meeting (CSW62) held at the UN headquarters—Challenges and Opportunities in Achieving Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Rural Women and Girls—promised to serve as an ideal platform for global child advocacy.

In some respects, the meeting made good on its promise; in others, less so.

As a pediatrician, the words "empowerment of girls" resonated deeply with my own lifetime interest in child advocacy. From the CSW62’s proposed organization of work, which included topics like "access to education" and "good practices in the empowerment of women and girls through the...promotion of access to justice, social services and health care", I had hoped that girls and girls’ rights would take center stage at this meeting. Indeed, a meeting devoted to girls seemed both appropriate and timely, considering that girls have only been incorporated in the CSW tagline five times in the recorded history of the Commission.

Although girls' rights were often mentioned, including in the remarks delivered by Under-Secretary-General of the UN and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the high-level side event Accelerating Efforts to Eliminate Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Child, Early, and Forced Marriage by 2030, they did not figure as prominently into the conference as the rights of adult women did, despite the titular importance of the girls-rights issue suggested in the calendar of side events by such titles as Delivering as One: Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals with and for Rural Women and Girls and Implementing the CSW Resolution 60/2 on Women, the Girl Child and HIV: Achievements and Challenges.

The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (including Girl Scouts of the USA), which characterizes itself as "the only movement for every girl and any girl," argued that girls should not only be seated at the table but should also be formally acknowledged and listened to as important participants in our conversation. The Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations addressed the interests of girls in a way dear to my heart—by acknowledging the youngest female audience member (who happened to be my little girl, Lily) during their joint event with Women in Global Health, ILO, WHO and the Gender Workforce Equity Hub Investing in Rural Health Workers for the Economic Participation and Empowerment of Rural Women and Girls. In a subsequent tweet, the Women in Global Health team promised Lily that they would fight for her right to receive equal pay when she does eventually enter the work force.

The Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nation also hosted an extremely moving presentation entitled Preventing Human Trafficking among Rural Women and Girls: Integrating Inherent Dignity into a Human Rights Model which included the personal story of Ms. Mely Lenario, a victim of modern sex slavery who now stands as a role model and inspiration to girls suffering in similar tragic circumstances. There was also social media participation by Educate Girls Now advocating for healthcare and education for rural girls, and the Arise Foundation supporting grassroots anti-slavery networks to counter child trafficking rings. Several civil organizations advocated for reforms relating to female genital mutilation, including individual men seeking that #MenENDFGM.

Discussions about female adolescent health were not as prominent as I’d expected, given the UN Foundation's Girl Up campaign and Coalition for Adolescent Girls. The Holy See Mission to the UN (the Catholic Church) did produce an event and statement Affirming the Human Dignity of Women and Girls through Healthcare and Education that featured the Fertility Education & Medical Management Foundation and FEMM program, which offers basic education to women about their menstrual cycle and which, in their view, serves as an alternative to medical forms of birth control and allows women to take greater control over their fertility and family planning. The program featured a pediatrician from rural Michigan who made the point that doctors should ask about the menstrual cycle as a vital sign. Absent from the presentation, however, was the further suggestion that information should be shared with teenaged young ladies. Even if rhythm methods of birth control are less effective in preventing teen pregnancy, this kind of early education for females can serve as an important tool in understanding fertility and preventing unwanted pregnancies throughout their lives. Several speakers, including recent college graduate Ms. Amanda Nguyen of the civil rights nonprofit Rise, discussed the important issue of rape support and the Sexual Assault Survivors' Rights Act; others spoke about abortion rights, for girls unfortunately have been affected by these issues as young as 10 years old.

The speakers at Harmful and Deadly: Child Marriage and Maternal Mortality in Rural Settings did focus on girls’ health in rural areas, but limited their discussion to examples of 15-year-old teenagers without mentioning the younger little girls who are likewise victims of these practices.

Since this UN gathering highlighted girls in the subtitle, I had hoped that the conference would feature the health and well-being of girls even more than the 70th annual World Health Organization World Health Assembly (WHA) and the 142nd WHO Executive Board meeting did this year. Unfortunately, some issues important to pediatricians and healthcare workers were not emphasized as much as they could have been. For example, more attention could have been paid to health issues like HIV, which is rising in adolescent girls while decreasing in other groups, neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) which seem to impact females more severely than males, and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) which, when untreated, can serve as a factor that prevents girls from attending school. Many would have likely enjoyed hearing more from formal delegations representing the American Academy of Pediatrics, the NCD Child organization, Newborn Foundation, and other professional and non-governmental organizations for children.

It is commendable that the UN CSW Regional Girls Consultation took surveys of girls and included their opinions in preparation for the Commission, and it was delightful to see a fantastic video of a UN auditorium full of mothers with their babies at a CSW Mama Meetup side event Mothers as Change-Makers in Public Life and the Workplace- Women's International Forum Lecture. Unbeknownst to me, before I carried my baby girl into several CSW sessions, this was the first week that mothers with their young children were formally allowed among the audience and panelists inside the UN.

It is my hope that the next Commission on the Status of Women, CSW63, to be held in New York in March 2019, will make good on the promise to make girls’ interests a central part of our conversation. In addition to taking surveys and alluding to girls in connection with certain matters, we could put girls at the center of the commission, invite them to join us, heartily advocate for their issues, and fully include them and their stories in all future CSW sessions. We could even let the girls go first.

Dr. Elizabeth Montgomery Collins is a pediatrician with 20 years experience in academic medicine, 8 years exclusively in HIV and international health, and special skills in tropical medicine, policy, and global health diplomacy. Dr. Collins’ primary interests are in global and international health and education, with a particular focus on pediatrics, HIV, international adoption, travel medicine, tropical medicine, and global access to safe medicines. She wishes to continue her work in global health and diplomacy as well as make valuable and lasting contributions to global policymaking.

Follow her on Twitter at @DrEMCollins

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