By: Ntlotleng Mabena
The fourth day was really an interesting one, it invoked in me all sorts of varying emotions at high intensity. After an anxiety-filled night, the day started with a session on ‘Achieving women’s empowerment for women in their diversity.’ I represented CAL on the panel discussing this elusive issue regarding empowerment and women in their diversity. The issue regarding women empowerment has really bothered me all week, and I have been really grappling with what this word really really means.
The first meeting I attended when I arrived in New York was the Women’s Rights Caucus; a session that acted as an orientation session, and to discuss broadly about the issues that were going to be points of discussion at the official CSW in the 2 weeks. What really struck a cord, and instilled this discomfort about the word ‘empowerment’ was when it was announced that UN Women, due to their donor pressures in essence, are not entertaining the push of language that talks to sexuality this year, in the fear of ‘losing’ key funders. Yet, in the same breath, UN Women’s primary objective, as I understand, involves a push for women empowerment at various levels.
Now my question is; “How are we even talking the language of women empowerment when, from the word go, voices of women regarding their own sexuality is being gagged by the very structure that is supposed to be standing with us women?”
A lot of the things are just not making sense to me about this picture……Anyway, back to the panel now. The panelists continued to talk about what women empowerment means in the context of women in their diversity. The CAL position on naming the different powers that oppress women was raised as an important analysis in the empowerment discourse. Also, it needs to be clear whose perspective is used when talking about empowerment, because my personal view of empowerment will significantly differ from the view of the one who holds a specific kind of power. The motives of ‘empowerment’ will also significantly differ between the two, as will be the measure of empowerment at the end of the day. It was a really interesting discussion, and even though I lost plenty of sleep over it all, I am glad I was given the opportunity to raise my views.
Next up, was a surprising session that we, Tanya, Sheena and myself, found ourselves in. We ended up at a session on the ‘Economic and sexual violence against women as barriers to sustainability: Case studies in prostitution, sex trafficking and the sex trade.’ This was an interesting session, mostly because I personally do not have a solid view on the issue at hand myself. It turned out to be a session condemning ‘prostitution’ and naming ‘prostitution’ as outright exploitation of vulnerable women, and commercialized rape. At the beginning of the week, we were warned about intense activities against SOGIE rights, sex worker rights and abortion by right-wing organization. I did not particularly imagine how explosive it could really get! And boy did it get explosive in that session! Women who identified themselves as sex workers were deliberately verbally attacked when they tried to raise their voices and counter some of the arguments made by the panelists. There were even school girls who were bused in to cheer and clap when the anti-prostitution camp spoke. It was really crazy, and it really left me speechless. On several occasions I wanted to stand up and walk out, but I kept on reminding myself that I am here to absorb this experience, and denying myself the experience of feeling uncomfortable was not going to do me any good. After attending that session, I must say that I am looking forward to attending a session on Friday that will look at the issue of sex work from the other side, considering the rights of sex workers. There was also a lot of discussion regarding the use of language, with this particular session totally against the use of the language of sex work, saying that ‘prostitution’ can never be seen as work. The session also spoke a lot about the need to remove the stigma from women who are prostitutes, by calling for the criminalization of buying sex, and publicly naming men who buy sex as prostituters, because men ‘do not buy pleasure or arousal, they buy power and violence’.
To be completely honest, I find myself completely conflicted around this topic, and I have decided to engage this issue further by confronting the things that sit so uncomfortably inside me, and learn more on this subject to be able to gain a proper perspective.
The day ended with some of us attending a rally for justice organized to mark the life of Berta Cáceres, a Honduran human rights defender who was murdered in her house while sleeping. Even though it was raining, the solidarity rally was well supported. After the rally, we all then attended a reception party hosted by Astraea and FRIDA. This unwinding time was much needed, after such an emotionally charged day. The reception gave us the opportunity to connect with other queer women on a social level…..the wine and beers flowed very well, I must say.