The Power of Convening: A Reflection on CSW 2016

The Global Rights for Women team spent last week in New York with thousands of women – and some men – who traveled from around the world to attend the United Nations’ 60th annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) meeting. This was my first time attending CSW and gathering with such a diverse and energized group of women who are working to promote women’s human rights was deeply inspiring and informative. The insights gleaned from CSW 2016 provide us with excellent guidance as Global Rights for Women looks toward the future of growing and deepening our work on violence against women and girls (VAWG) around the world.

Emerging from the many conversations, panels and connections at CSW I was struck by two key takeaways. First, violence and coercion against women by men thrives around the world. Female to female alliances, with the support of critical male allies, is a powerful force to counter this violence. Second, women who are working within their own organizations and communities to combat VAWG have a deep need for convening and connection with other women doing similar work.

The positive impact of female to female alliances and connection is visible first in the sheer power and presence of the thousands of women who gathered to cooperate, share resources and effect change during the two weeks of CSW. Global Rights for Women contributed to this vibrant exchange by hosting a panel on combating sexual violence. During our panel Diane Rosenfeld, a leader of the Harvard Law School Gender Violence Project, spoke eloquently about the impact of females working together. Diane shared the example of bonobo primates, who exemplify the influence of female-female alliances. The “Bonobo Principle,” as Diane describes it, demonstrates that where female-female alliances exist, male sexual coercion can be stopped.

Diane describes this model of “collective self-defense” in her article Who Are You Calling a ‘Ho’?:

If a female bonobo is aggressed upon by a male, she lets out a cry, other females descend from the trees to fend off the aggressor, whom they then isolate and ostracize for a few days until he is reintroduced to the troop. They seem to operate on a principle that if one female can be assaulted, then they are all at risk.

It was striking to learn that among bonobo primates, female-female alliances have sent a clear message that the community does not tolerate sexual violence. Learning about the behavior of the bonobo females sent a chill down my spine. These primates have grasped so clearly that when one of us is threatened, we all suffer. At Global Rights for Women, we know that violence harms women, families and communities. Violence has a ripple effect. And yet, I am inspired to think how our work to end violence can also have a ripple effect – a change in the opposite direction.

When Global Rights for Women works with advocates throughout the world, we are driven by the belief that women working together and building meaningful partnerships can create systemic change. The foundation of our alliances are a simple yet profound formula: they are driven by the needs and wisdom of our international partners and guided by the best practices learned over decades of work in the United States.

Yet, in order to build these alliances women around the world crave – and so deeply need – opportunities to convene. When women convene, best practices can be shared across the table, challenges can be discussed, powerful partnerships can be formed and women’s human right to be free from violence can be achieved!

As we chart our future course at Global Rights for Women, the power of convening is a guiding force. Next week four delegations from Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, and Tajikistan will convene here in Minnesota to work with Global Rights for Women and our Duluth-based partner, the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project.  Through that convening they will gain skills to effectively implement violence against women laws in their home countries. Equally important, they will have the opportunitiy to share experiences with each other and strengthen partnerships. These relationships are essential to sustaining and driving this work forward.

Through this project and others, Global Rights for Women will continue to create opportunities to convene. We will thoughtfully create space for women to share, collaborate and support each other in our collective efforts to build a world where all women are free from violence.


Sara Johnson is the Director of Development and Communications at Global Rights for Women.