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Rutgers Course in Feminist Advocacy Brings Students to UN

A major global gathering in March is focus of course 

Students in Feminist Advocacy Class

A group of Rutgers University juniors and seniors are getting high-level access at the United Nations this week as they sit in on the annual session of the Commission on the Status of Women, a 10-day event that draws thousands of observers, activists, and officials from around the world. 

The students' foray into the international area was made possible through a course, “Feminist Advocacy at the United Nations,” taught by Radhika 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.

 "I am so excited to take Rutgers students again to the Commission on the Status of Women meeting at the UN and to watch them engage with the issues," Balakrishnan said.

An economist who focuses on poverty and gender inequality, Balakrishnan has long been involved with the UN. She serves on 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. Students get observer status, allowing them to participate on behalf of various non-governmental organizations.

Professor Radhika Balakrishnan

“We have a surprising amount of power,” says Jake Wasserman, who took the course last year. “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.”

Last year's theme of Empowering Rural Women and Girls provided the students plenty of material for research and discussion.

Shahjahan read 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.

Halimat Oshun 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 theme of the CSW 2019 session is "social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality, and the empowerment of women and girls."

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. This year's presentation takes place at 12:00 pm, April 23 at the Ruth Dill Johnson Crockett Building. Students will be sharing information about the events they attend on social media using the hashtag #RUFEM201

Balakrishnan will be serving on two panels during the session: "Inequality, Women’s Empowerment and the SDGs," and "Gender, Economic Policy and Women’s Human Rights: Tackling Discrimination to Strengthen Social Protection, Increase Access to Services and Transform Systems." 

UN Logo

Last year her students watched her take part in a panel discussion with top diplomats about achieving gender parity so employees throughout the UN would be evenly split between men and women.

When it was her turn to speak, she broadened the discussion.

“We need to go beyond gender parity,” Balakrishnan said. “We need to really change the patriarchal attitudes that are not just in the UN but all over the world.”

One student was so inspired by the experience that she 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.”






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