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Wendi Momen driving a new awareness of the role of women to the UN’s CSW event

Present from the very first founding meeting of ebbf back in 1990 in Chamonix, at the base of Mount Blanc, current ebbf board member and general secretary Wendi Momen (see her profile on ebbf’s members platform) has been, throughout her life, a passionate promoter of creating equal opportunities for women and men.

She is now about to catch a plane taking her to New York, to the 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations where she will be representing ebbf.

We took this opportunity to ask her about the CSW, about the topic of the equality of women and about, her thoughts and  activities in this one of ebbf’s seven core values.

ebbf: when and what is the CSW event Wendi: the commission on the status of women is one of oldest commissions of the UN set up back in 1946. It is charged with overseeing issues that state parties and UN are dealing with in relation with women, overseeing that agenda and ensure that the status of women is adequately promoted and funded. National representatives meet every year for two weeks to reconfirm commitments for the progress of women and this year the 56th edition of the session of the Commission on the Status of Women is about to start and will run from the 27th of February to 9th of March.

ebbf: what are some of the key topics that will be covered at CSW this year? Wendi: one of the focus areas this year is that of rural women, looking at their role in alleviating poverty and wealth creation.

Women living in rural areas have a greater need and greater impact when getting involved in entrepreneurial activities with the direct consequences of their activity affecting the wellbeing of their rural communities.

Both if you live in the “global south” and in the “global north” the fact that you are living in a detached, rural environment means that your access to healthcare, communications, education, money for loans is inevitably harder than if you lived in a city. The is the recognition of the importance of supporting rural development (and the specific role of women in making this happen) that will also avoid the disastrous effects of urbanization with the worrying growth of disorganized mega cities and the exodus from rural areas.

ebbf: what concepts / ideas will you bring to CSW? Wendi: The way our society is structured right now is not working for women, for children and as a consequence not even for men and most definitely not for the evolution and overall prosperity of society. I also connect these “status of women” issues with how broader business and its structures need to change to enable women to be at their most effective. The key messages would hinge on wealth creation and poverty alleviation as entrepreneurial possibilities grow for women bring about an economically, environmentally and societal model. Practically we are there co-sponsoring with UN-women a workshop on the topic of growth and the female entrepreneur bringing together people from Europe, the USA and the “global south”.

We will show examples of the work that has already been done for women entrepreneurs, where women in rural settings have set up their own enterprises. Sharing some of WIRE UK’s projects e.g. where a collective of women set up in a rural setting developed a whole range of products that can be made at home and sold jewelry, dairy products, gifts, clothes of very high standard.

ebbf: what is your thinking in the area of the equality of women and men? Wendi: this is an age in which we need to embed as a foundational concept for civilization not only the need to giving – women – opportunities to advance, it is not even giving women the rights that man may have, people need to recognise this is a foundational concept. We are seeing today that when there are pressures in the economy it is women who suffer most, take the example of the latest figure on people at work in the UK that just came out and you can see how the number of women at work is at its lowest for decades. It is about structures in our society: in the “global north” it may be ok to have men at work whilst women go to part-time work, but in the “global south” women coming out of employment is not just women losing opportunities, it is instead a setback for the entire family, village, societal progress. It is a well documented fact that when men have excess money they first spend it on themselves whereas women tend to re-invest in the wellbeing of their children, starting from education and healthcare. In terms of equality the idea is that this is not just about women but also about men. Specially in those rural or “global south” environment men themselves would benefit from rethinking the way they behave in these settings – men need to think of their role and responsibility in improving the family. It is also about creating structures and institutiosn that will allow women to enjoy possibilities. An ethical and moral advancement of their communities needs to be fostered, access and attitudes need to evolve. Women themselves are sometime complicit in taking a back seat in times of crisis, a buffer for the welfare state and they are the first to take up responsibilities that welfare used to cover. Women need to leave room for men to also take on more of those cores and responsibilities.

ebbf: your life has been dedicated to providing equal opportunities to women and men, what was the spark that started your interest in this topic? Was it something that happened around you? Wendi: It was a long time ago, what stated me on this journey back in 1976 when I was in my 20s during a visit I made to a West African country. I was there to do my research for my PhD on foreign plicy of that nation which had absolutely nothing to do with a “women focus”. I was speaking with the minister of agriculture of that nation about a soft loan that government  was receiving from China for agricultural development and and he was telling me how the money would be used for machinery helping the development of their peanuts export crop. Shortly before that interview I had visited nearby rice fields and saw them filled with women planting rice and when I was listening to the minister talking, I was realizing how the money was going to go into the hands of men producing the peanuts for export but none of it would reach those women working so hard in front of me to feed their country. I put it to the minister that considering how the country was receiving every year important UN assistance for their country’s food production some of that investment should be destined to those women but he did not understand at all what I was talking about and had no idea of the role of women in their economy. But that was not all, when I met those women, as an american 25 year old I thought it harsh that such old and wrinkled women has to perform such hard work, to my astonishment I realized how they were actually only 5 years older than me and the lines in their faces and their poor physical state was due to the harshness of their  work (I really thought they were 60 years old). So the combination of the lack of insight by the government on the role of those women and the unnoticed toll that work was causing on those women is what had me passionately start to work towards better awareness by all parties of the role and need for equal opportunities and equal recognition.

ebbf: have you seen any progress in this area over the years? Wendi: one of the things that has been great for me is working with other women and men who support this concept at these UN events and in collaboration with  large number of organizations that are involved, this awareness of the growing interest and the increasing number of organizations active in this field. But there are many more successes to celebrate: the increased awareness of these issues around the world the fact that this commission exists gives rise to this overview at least once per year on this key topic. Even though govs may sometimes not wish to subscribe the responsibiliies they have signed up for the status women in many parts of the world access to higher education is now accepted for women. Women in charge of their own health which has knock on effect on number of children they have direclty realted to the progress of their community and their own personal health: if you have 20 kids you can’t educate them properly. When women have responsibility they make better choices. There are a huge number of women in work, in industries they were previously barred from : women entrepreneurs, women as doctors and in the field law. What we still don’t have is women on boards… Just to pick one very practical example seeing the success of the work of NASERIAN, that I am currently involved with, working with Masai widows in Tanzania to also develop their entrepreneurial wealth creation. This is just one example of the growing number of useful, practical ways in which organizations are making a direct difference – women now working in six villages a goat project to sell milk and cheese then using the surplus for the education of their children. The change in perceptions, in the role and the importance of giving these opportunities to women in that setting have been amazing, together with the impact on the education of those children and the impact they will have on the future of their village. And it all started with a very small project. A CLOSING REMARK?

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