CSW56: Women & Spirituality at the UN Commission

Women’s Voices Being Heard at the United Nations

By Kathe Schaaf

On a rainy afternoon in late February 2012, a dozen women gather in a room of a hotel near the United Nations headquarters in New York. They are activists representing women’s organizations from across the U.S. and the world, and they come rooted in diverse spiritual and religious traditions. They are participants in the 56th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), attracted to our particular conversation by an informal grassroots invitation to join in celebrating women’s spiritual leadership and the Divine Feminine at the next Parliament of the World’s Religions.

I am one of the women anchoring this particular sacred circle and several other conversations at this session of CSW. For more than a decade, I have been part of a remarkable community of women engaged at the intersection of women’s global leadership and embodied spiritual activism. Each year we gather at CSW. While official delegates meet in general session at United Nations headquarters for two weeks to discuss global women’s issues, thousands of women converge to support women’s empowerment, exchange information, and build connections.

Photo: Agricultural Law

This year’s CSW theme is “the empowerment of rural women.” Workshops explore topics defining the complex global landscape of women’s lives: hunger, refugees, female genital mutilation, HIV-AIDS, legal rights, access to safe water, economic sustainability, healthy births, security, climate change, rape as a weapon of war, educating women and girls, sexual trafficking and slavery.

No matter how dire the problems, the workshops leave me inspired in seeing women from around the world sharing best practices and stories of success through grassroots strategies. It becomes a powerful exchange of information, of learning… and of deep feminine wisdom. These grassroots women are addressing some of the world’s worst problems in practical ways, sensitive to regional culture through the creative and collaborative use of limited resources.

Sprinkled throughout the schedule of more than 200 parallel events are a handful related to spirituality and religion: for instance, Women, Spirituality and Transformative Leadership; Sacred Women’s Circles; and Religion and Funding the Voices of Women. The UN has not always provided a context supporting such work. Interfaith pioneers such as Robert Muller, Avon Mattison, and a host of their colleagues worked for years to open up the United Nations to acknowledging the role of religion in global culture, promoting international dialogue, and inviting inter-religious cooperation.

The Temple of Understanding, founded in 1960 by Juliet Hollister, was the first major interfaith organization in United States and played a significant role in this achievement. The Temple sponsored international colloquia in Calcutta and Geneva about religion and world issues, and they built relationships at the United Nations that endure to this day. Currently the NGO Committee on Spirituality, Values and Global Concerns meets at the United Nations every month. Many of the NGOs affiliated with the UN are interfaith and faith-based organizations, including United Religions Initiative, Anglican Women’s Empowerment, Maryknoll Sisters, Brahma Kumaris, United Methodist Women.

The Power of One Voice

I was first drawn into this incredible hive of women through the embodied leadership of Jean Shinoda Bolen as she wove a powerful grassroots web promoting a 5th U.N. Women’s Conference. Such a Conference was left unscheduled – but not forgotten – at the 10th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action. In Urgent Message from Mother: Gather the Women; Save the World (2005), she notes the importance of women coming together in a fifth global conference:

Jean Shinoda Bolen


At every previous conference, women came from all over the world, talked and bonded, learned from each other and formed a network of friendship and political alliances on behalf of women. Since Beijing, we have the Internet as a means of communication and connection. It gives us the power at our fingertips to move ideas and funds, to mobilize and organize and make a difference. (Page 124)

Women were galvanized by Jean’s call for grassroots action to keep the idea of a 5th Women’s Conference alive at the UN. We grew as an organic coalition representing diverse women’s organizations: Millionth Circle, Gather the Women, Circle Connections, Peace X Peace, International Public Policy Institute, Pathways to Peace, Women’s Intercultural Network, Women’s World Summit Foundation, Women of Spirit and Faith, and many more. At the beginning, many of us were new to the United Nations’ organization and protocols; we were mentored by more experienced women and seasoned by our early UN experiences.

We come each year to CSW as a collaborative community wearing blue buttons proclaiming ‘5WCW,’ handing out flyers and organizing workshops on the topic. We come carrying the simple yet profound commitment to seeding women’s circles with a sacred center at the UN. And we come with curiosity to learn from one another and our global sisters.

For several years, I have attended CSW as a representative of Women of Spirit and Faith. As WSF anchored parallel events on women’s spiritual leadership, we discovered a hunger for this spiritual conversation at the United Nations. Our workshop this year attracted more than 80 women (at 8:30 am). They participated actively in the dialogue and expressed their gratitude for the opportunity. We also collaborated with a cluster of sister organizations to broadcast this Global Call to Prayer:

On the eve of the opening of the 56th Session of the UN-Commission on the Status of Women, women of all spiritual traditions are invited to join in prayer and silence for the good of all – wherever they are and at any time that day. Women of all spiritual traditions are invited to join in prayer and silence, to hold in their hearts the hopes of those who come to the CSW: for homes and a world without violence and fear, where there will be good food, air and water, education and medical care, for women’s empowerment and gender equality, for consciousness, voice and choice, for circles with a sacred center to support the wisdom and courage of women in them, and for there to be a UN 5th World Conference on Women. 

Now a second Call to Prayer in support of a UN 5th World Conference on Women is scheduled for Sunday, April 22, Earth Day, which you are invited to join.  

In recent years, we’ve celebrated successes together. In July 2010, the UN launched UN Women as a consolidated agency to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. On March 8, 2012, the UN made the following announcement: “On International Women’s Day, the President of the UN General Assembly, H.E. Mr. Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser and the Secretary-General of the United Nations H.E. Mr. Ban Ki-moon jointly proposed the convening of a United Nations Fifth World Conference on Women in 2015, twenty years after the last women’s summit in Beijing.” 

There is much work to be done before a UN 5th World Conference on Women becomes a reality, and many women, thankfully, are already actively engaged. Some will work through the official channels of UN Women, the United Nations General Assembly, and its member nations. Others will contribute through creative grassroots activism. Still others will contribute the ‘subtle activism’ of prayer, meditation, silence, and seeding circles with a sacred center. It will take all of us working together.

Reflecting on my experiences at CSW, what lingers in my heart are the authentic stories of so many diverse women. Some stories describe the subjugation and suffering of women and girls; the most compelling stories affirm women as courageous, collaborative and effective leaders on behalf of a better world. This is the message that lingers long after I return from CSW: women’s wisdom is a precious resource in these troubled times.