"Most undergraduates don't get to do this" - Steven Haverlock, SAS senior
The meeting at the United Nations was packed with human rights activists, journalists, and diplomats.
The topic up for discussion was huge: Achieving gender parity so employees throughout the UN would be evenly split between men and women.
“This is long overdue,” said Ana María Menéndez, an under-secretary-general and part of a high-level panel that included a former deputy president of South Africa as well as ambassadors from Qatar and Ethiopia.
Joining them was Rutgers University–New Brunswick professor Radhika Balakrishnan. When it was her turn to speak, she broadened the discussion.
“We need to go beyond gender parity,” said Balakrishnan, a professor of women’s and gender studies in the School of Arts and Sciences and faculty director of the university’s Women’s Center for Global Leadership. “We need to really change the patriarchal attitudes that are not just in the UN but all over the world.”
As she spoke during the session, Balakrishnan could see familiar faces from Rutgers. Three of her students had seats amid the standing-room-only throng. And more than a dozen others would be attending UN events over the next two weeks during the 62nd annual session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).
“This is an unbelievable opportunity,” says Steven Haverlock, a senior majoring in women’s and gender studies and human resource management. “Most undergraduates don’t get to do this.”
The students—20 juniors and seniors—were getting an unusually high level of access through Balakrishnan’s “Feminist Advocacy at the United Nations” course.
An economist who focuses on poverty and gender inequality, Balakrishnan has long been involved with the UN. She is co-chair of the Civil Society Advisory Committee to the United Nations Development Programme and recently joined the Global Advisory Council for United Nations Population Fund .
“I bring a voice that reflects both my training as an economist and my work on gender equality issues,” she says.
In her course, she teaches students about global issues and then brings them to the UN as those issues come to life during the CSW’s 10-day session, which draws thousands of observers, activists, and officials. Students get observer status, allowing them to participate on behalf of various non-governmental organizations.
“We have a surprising amount of power,” says Jake Wasserman, a 2018 graduate who majored in public health and minored in cognitive science. “We have the ability to go up to any of the ambassadors and negotiate with them about the issues we have been studying in class.”
Students come well-armed with knowledge.
“We read the same documents that the UN people are reading so we know what’s on the table,” says Tasnia Shahjahan, who is double majoring in women’s and gender studies and political science. “In class we discuss the gaps in the documents, and the various fault lines, which give us insight into the underlying issues.”
The theme of the CSW 2018 session was Empowering Rural Women and Girls.
Shahjahan had been reading UN reports of an increase in child marriage in her native country of Bangladesh, and how that development may be related to global warming.
“Climate change leads to a loss in agricultural land, and then families who can’t support themselves respond by marrying the girls off at a young age,” she says.
After visiting the UN, the students work on final projects that are presented publicly at an event that draws faculty and students from across the university.
“The entire experience is life-changing for students,” Balakrishnan says.
Halimat Oshun, a 2018 graduate, agreed. A Rutgers University–Newark student, Oshun was so intrigued by the course description that she took the train to New Brunswick to attend the class.
“Having conversations with people who make a direct impact in the world encourages me as a young woman to strive to shatter that metaphorical glass ceiling and go for my dreams without reservation,” Oshun says.
She explored the impact of menstrual health on educational opportunities.
“When rural girls don’t have access to sanitary materials, they don’t go to school,” she says.
“They end up missing one to three months of school every year.”
The course attracts students from many majors, creating a lively mix of opinions, experience, and aspirations.
“I am a public health student, but we have students from philosophy, English, women’s and gender studies, and film,” Wasserman says. “You get to hear ideas that you may not have heard in your own department.”
One student created a documentary about the course. Morgan Sanguedolce, a 2018 graduate who majored in English, says she was impressed by her fellow students. Her film, which is titled “Participation Generation: Feminist Advocacy at the UN,” includes interviews with Balakrishnan and students.
“I wanted to show how young people are taking strides and doing amazing things, like attending the UN Commission on the Status of Women,” she says. “The world should know how serious we are and how much we care.”