A first-hand account of my experience at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women

By Heather Smith
May 31, 2013

During the week of March 2-9, 2013, I had the opportunity to attend the 57th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) in New York. I was part of the Education International delegation, which joined with trade union groups from around the world. There were six of us from the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, with Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba, Yukon and New Brunswick being represented. However, in our trade union delegation there was also representation from United Kingdom, Italy, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Algeria, Ghana, Senegal, Australia, Jamaica, United States and several Canadian unions. Before I even left the room for the first of our daily briefings, it was already an experience of a lifetime sharing a purpose with these women.

Each year the UNCSW has a priority theme and the goal is to have agreed conclusions, a set of concrete recommendations, accepted by the countries represented. These conclusions outline progress, gaps and challenges that governments, intergovernmental bodies, civil society actors and other relevant stakeholders put into action at the international, national, regional and local levels.

In addition to the formal UNCSW meetings and deliberations, there are representatives of hundreds of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) who travel to New York to present their work in the area of the priority theme. It was mind-boggling to listen to the plight of women and girls in other parts of the world and I found myself being thankful for where I was fortunate enough to be born.

The priority theme for the 57th UNCSW was the elimination and prevention of violence against women and girls. I am sure you can appreciate the difficulty of ensuring agreement from 193 nations, each with different lenses, experiences, cultures and realities. Trade unions lobby for women worldwide, regardless of whether or not they are members of unions. Our role was to lobby for what our trade union group had determined were our priorities, of which there were five.

One of these five priorities was the need for strong and inclusive language on the role of educators and educational institutions in preventing and eliminating violence. Sally Armstrong, a Canadian journalist and author, once said in an interview that, “…it has to do with education. That’s the danger for fundamentalists and extremists and nut bars. If you educate your women they’re going to ask you why on earth you’re doing what you’re doing.”

In Canada we take for granted that everyone has the right to an education. In other parts of the world girls, like Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, are literally risking death to have the opportunity to get an education. The education of boys was also a focus so that they would grow into men who respected women, beginning with their own mothers, sisters and friends. The question was asked of all of us: How are we raising our sons?

The testimonials and stories I heard firsthand were of commonly accepted domestic violence, of rapes- gang rapes, marital rapes and rapes in times of conflict, of child brides of 8 or 9 years of age, of female genital mutilation, of targeted gang assaults on women and the list could go on. It is easy to sit back and say these things are happening somewhere else and not in our great country of Canada. While this may be true of these extreme examples, there are cases of hundreds of missing aboriginal women. The Native Women's Association of Canada has catalogued 520 cases of missing or murdered aboriginal women, half of them since the year 2000.

Midway through the week I must admit I felt a pang of guilt as I thought about an area where we have spent a huge deal of energy: bullying. Somehow it seemed so trivial when set against the atrocities that girls and women are facing in other parts of the world. Interestingly, this was brought up in a session to which a woman from Africa replied that we are just farther along the road towards equality and that we must keep up the fight so they would have something to strive towards.

For example, I attended the launch of, which is an initiative of the Ministers for the Status of Women from the four Atlantic Provinces. It is a website designed for girls that contains a wealth of information for girls, parents and educators.

On Friday, March 8th I marched with several hundred other women to celebrate International Women’s Day. On that same day, Sally Armstrong was interviewed on The Current on CBC radio about her new book titled Ascent of Women. Sally, who has cottaged in Bathurst for a number of years, documents a long list of examples of women around the world who are working together like never before in the fight for equality between the sexes -- and winning. Her book is one of hope for the future and, if the tenacity and perseverance of the women I met and listened to in New York are any indication, I share Sally’s optimism. I also have a much stronger resolve to ensure that my elementary students experience a character education program that teaches them how to be responsible for their words and actions so they grow up to be kind adults who respect all others…men and women.


Heather Smith is the President of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation from July 2015 to July 2017.

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