From UCM to North Korea

From UCM to North Korea

Presented by Janis Alton

November 17, 2019


I thank you for asking me to tell you something of my work in and around the UN.

And, if you ever knew Helen Tucker, one of the founders of this congregation, I thank her, too.

She was a force – an unapologetic doer – who spoke out after each service, in the days when it was the custom here to not let the speaker have the last word but …to conclude an address with discussion.  I loved this!

Helen taught elocution at U. of Toronto which added more punch to her comments. I listened sometimes without understanding as Helen spoke of global democracy and framing a constitution for “Federation Earth”, among other progressive things.

She was a UN enthusiast, too.  I believe that she actually met one of its foremost pioneers – Eleanor Roosevelt. It was Eleanor Roosevelt who launched the UN Commission on the Status of Women in 1946.

No wonder she saw a need for such a body. Of the original 51 states in the UN, only 30 had equal voting rights for women!

The UN Commission on the Status of Women is a now a 45 member state body which promotes gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. It is where I have chiefly spent a part of each year for more than 30 years and …. I will be there again in March 2020, with at least 20 inter-generational members of Canadian Voice of Women for Peace. (I don’t have time today to tell you of our participation in other UN bodies in Geneva and Vienna, but will focus mostly on the Commission on the Status of Women.)

In 1960, Helen, as you may know, was a co-founder of Voice of Women, later incorporated as the more explicit Canadian Voice of Women for Peace. We now call it just plain VOW. It’s membership across Canada quickly vaulted into the thousands as it successfully raised awareness of the need to abolish nuclear weapons.

Coming to UCM in the 70’s, as a community public health nurse, I slowly began to sit up and pay attention to Helen’s message.  As a child in WW11, I knew nothing of the use of these weapons but I was aware of the post-war practice of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing.

This was made to stop in 1963, but …the weapons have not yet been eliminated.  Today, there are some 16,000 (!!!) in the hands of 9 countries.

Helen’s energy, grit and progressive ideas touched me and influenced me to learn more.

I headed to Erindale College (now UTM) and its political science and international relations programs.

When I wanted to write about what women were doing or saying on a particular political issue, I was usually told there was no material.  As well, as I progressed through my studies, I grew more and MORE indignant at the rutted orientation and institutions which perpetuate the threat system – the “do as I say, or else” system, in the name of “security.”

And so, I became active in VOW ( I had joined earlier) and within a year was its principle representative to the United Nations.

The UN is an institution which from the beginning included the voices of civil society, not many at first, but now the place bursts with affiliates such as VOW. The numbers have become a problem in terms of space but still more and more organizations apply to gain access. (The waiting list for an application to be reviewed is now more than 5 years.)

This signals what, Sally Armstrong, the renowned Canadian journalist and women’s rights advocate,  in her just concluded MASSEY LECTURES calls the rising tide of personal will.

VOW continues to look for opportunities within the Commission on the Status of Women to speak up about women and peace concerns.

There is so much to be done! SO…  much that the UN has called four global/world meetings to boost the efforts. The first was in 1975 in Mexico.  I attended the fourth and most recent one in Beijing in 1995 – the largest gathering of women in history – some 40,000.

No other subject area of UN work has resulted in this number of global conferences.  And these we can thank for advancing priorities and strategies related to equality (not equity, which is a newer, more inclusive term), development and peace.

Preparation for 1995 meeting was remarkable in that civil society and governments collaborated to create the strongest set of commitments ever made to the world’s women and children. This was called THE BEIJING PLATFORM for ACTION.

At each session of the Commission on the Status of Women the progress made by all countries toward the targets described in the Beijing Platform for Action is reviewed and rigorously critiqued by all Commission members.  As an affiliate, VOW not only attends these formal meetings of the Commission, we  fit in workshops hosted by civil society groups such as ourselves,  private briefings – exchanging views with like-minded civil society groups, such as the World Federalists and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom – and …  with lobby visits to member governments. Here we speak out on a range of issues such as rights violations by peace keepers, and the impact of militarization and war activities on the environment.  It’s busy and….it’s tiring!!  Our VOW team meets at 7:30 each morning for group briefings, and one year we held these meetings at the UU UNO office.

I’d like to show you a video taken in 2018 of this experience.

This year, not surprisingly, we urged Canada to sign on to the historic 2017 UN treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

Did you know that Canada boycotted this historic process and …still won’t have anything to do with it even though Canada does not have a nuclear arsenal.

Is all this influx of women and focus on women and girls’ issues at the UN making a difference?

Yes, in many ways. Let me tell you three of them.

  1. Our participants can feel quite energized and inspired!
  2. For myself ….my frequent presence on site opened the door to an unforgettable experience – – as part of a 30-person feminist delegation from 15 countries  to  push for peace and reconciliation on the Korean peninsula. We sought permission to walk across the demilitarized zone from north to south to symbolize a coming together.

Why traverse the most heavily mined place on earth?

I was inspired by Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) which legally promotes women’s inclusion in all peacebuilding.  It says essentially that women should be involved in all peace building processes from prevention to post-conflict reconstruction.  It’s international law. It’s another victory for women. But the implementation of it has not been really robust.

This trip to North and South Korea, 2 years in the planning, seemed like an opportunity to implement that.

Our team of 30 included well-known Nobel Laureates Mairaed Maguire (Northern Ireland)  and Leymah Gbowee (Liberia) as well as pioneering American feminist and author, Gloria Steinem; 7 of us over 70, the youngest just 23.  As a peacewoman accustomed to press disinterest, I was greatly surprised by the international TV coverage which kept up wherever we went.

We sent back photos of our North Korean-hosted “propaganda tour” — maternity hospitals, a factory, the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, the country’s “eternal president.” But there are also photos of us hugging North Korean women at a peace symposium. Together we sang and cried as we shared hopes for what could be.

But ……this is one part of a longer story which includes our crossing and experience in South Korea – for another time.

  1. At the global level, new goals were set out in the Millennium Development Goals and the more recent Sustainable Development Goals have been agreed to by member governments.  Political will is improving but…. the pace is slow!!

We still have child marriage, violence against women, poverty, education gaps, wage gaps, peace women’s voices too infrequently included in peace processes….. and …  we still have the madness of nuclear weapons, now being made smaller to be more useable!!!!

The struggle will never stop but progress has been made. As Sally says, we now have lift off for women. Malala, in today’s story, is a perfect example of personal will which propels her. …. and so many others. She famously exemplifies the powerful call for inclusion!

I conclude with words of optimism ….

I can tell you the hot news that there will be another global gathering of women in 2020 – to be called “Beijing plus 25”.  This one will be led by civil society for the first time,  to do an end run around those few UN governments resisting change largely related to women’s reproductive health.

Gender equality and equity ARE advancing at the same time as more than 1/3 of the UN membership has signed the 2017 treaty banning nuclear weapons!  Ratifications, a more complex national step, are coming in nicely.

Governments and civil society are moving away from the old top down approach to more collaborative partnerships.

The bold post- war step of the creation of the UN is, as I witness it, making this world a better, more inclusive place.

In 2020 the UN will be 75. May it carry on!

Helen, I think, would be very pleased.



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