Special reportIt was the trip of a lifetime: to New York and a seat at the United Nations as part of the 61st Commission on the Status of Women. Otago Daily Times editorial executive Helen Speirs reports.
For more than two incredible weeks in New York I didn't stop pinching myself from the moment I woke up and opened the blind of my Manhattan hotel room window on to a commanding view of the Chrysler building, three blocks away.
The sense of unreality continued every morning as I made my way - steaming coffee in gloved hand alongside the mass of other morning pedestrians - from the hotel several blocks away to the United Nations on First Ave, at the edge of the East River.
I quickly worked out a favourite route, along Lexington Ave and down East 43rd St, which led directly towards the striking glass monolith that is the 39-storey Secretariat Building, the centrepiece of the UN headquarters, co-designed by French architect Le Corbusier, and the then (working) home of our own Helen Clark, head of the UN Development Programme.
I never got over the fact that the United Nations was my "workplace" for two weeks. (Although the Secretariat Building itself was out of bounds, the General Assembly and Conference buildings held most of the events and a chance to look around the General Assembly and Security Council meeting rooms was a highlight.
Not only was I at the UN, but I was in New York for the first time - the city of so many famous songs, movies and novels, of monumental architecture and history. The combination made it the trip of a lifetime.
I was conscious of how fortunate I was, and was therefore determined to make the most of every minute. It became apparent it wouldn't only be the city that would never sleep ...
I was at the UN as a member of Presbyterian Women Aotearoa New Zealand's (PWANZ) delegation to the 61st Commission on the Status of Women.
The commission is a function of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc). Established in 1946, it is the global policy-making body exclusively dedicated to promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women (see graphic).
The commission sits for two weeks every year and includes high-level ministerial sessions and other interactive discussions and expert panels. Some 8000-9000 people (predominantly women), a mix of government representatives from UN member states, UN entities and accredited non-governmental organisations, meet to share ideas, push for change, monitor progress, seek accountability, reaffirm previous global commitments and set standards for further work.
This year's priority theme was "women's economic empowerment in the changing world of work". The outcome of the commission's consideration of the priority theme takes the form of an "Agreed Conclusions" document, negotiated by all member states.
NGOs can also contribute by submitting initial written statements to the draft conclusions document, making oral interventions and continuing to make written suggestions for change as the draft document is negotiated during the two-week session.
I found this a fascinating process. Every word of every clause is negotiated by NGOs and member states; the original draft of only a few pages increases and decreases as amendments are made and whole sections added or single words deleted.
The Agreed Conclusions are not legally binding, but become part of the foundation for gender advancement for member states.
They are one thread of a giant tapestry, an overarching framework of interrelated global laws and conventions to protect women and achieve full human rights.
These include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) and the Sustainable Development Goals (developed from the Millennium Development Goals) of the Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted in 2015.
The 17 goals are to be implemented by the 193 UN member states by 2030 and are billed as a "roadmap" for sustainable social, economic and environmental progress worldwide (see graphic ). The over-riding commitment is "Leave no one behind".
Goal 5 (to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, summarised by the catchphrase "Planet 50/50 by 2030") and Goal 8 (to promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all) were the most relevant this year, though the interrelation of all goals was regularly emphasised.
The commission consists of 45 members who hold four-year terms on the basis of equitable geographical distribution. Five bureau members are the front face of the discussions, which this year were chaired by Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, of Brazil.
Delegates were also addressed by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, UN Under-Secretary-General and UN Women executive director Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka and UN Assistant-Secretary-General and UN Women deputy executive director Lakshmi Puri.
Interactions with these high-flyers were fascinating. Mlambo Ngcuka was omnipresent and inspirational, and delegates were clearly impressed with the well-spoken and gentle Patriota and Guterres, who, with his senior leadership team, also addressed a special NGO meeting (reportedly the first time a Secretary-General had exclusively addressed civil society at a women's commission).
Guterres spoke of the "battle" to achieve parity, which he said was "essential in government, parliament, police, on boards, in all areas of politics, economic and social life". To achieve that, he said, "men need to stand up for women" and he commented that "my experience is when we have gender parity society is better".
(An open challenge about his gender was humorously made - and humorously received with the comment, "The best thing I can do [for gender equality] is to resign tomorrow!") It was made clear by many speakers that men were equally important in the advancement of women.
The official New Zealand Government delegation was led this year by Jo Goodhew, who was standing in for Women's Minister Paula Bennett.
Her national statement to the commission included mention of the Government's establishment of a working group to recommend pay equity principles, encouraging private sector employers to reduce the gender pay gap, and encouraging wider uptake of flexible working hours.
More than 30 other New Zealanders attended as individuals or part of non-government organisations with special consultative status to the UN. They included representatives from Pacific Women's Watch NZ, Girl Guiding NZ, the YWCA, Soroptomists International, Graduate Women International and PWANZ.
Our 12-strong PWANZ delegation was led by Presbyterian minister the Rev Carol Grant, of Dunedin, and was the fourth (and final) trip for her.
Grant had selected Presbyterian church clergy, women outside the church who had applied for the chance to participate, and invited two others, myself and Dunedin City Council CEO Sue Bidrose to accompany her.
The trip gave us privileged access to influential and inspirational women, world leaders, global discussions and an insider's view of one part of the vast machine that is UN.
We could not help but come back empowered, energised and enthused, with ideas, skills and the will to make a positive difference for women at a local level.