Logo for the 59th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
Logo for the 59th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

A recent Trent graduate, Kemi Akapo, recently acted as a Peterborough Haliburton YWCA representative in the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which took place at the UN headquarters in New York from March 9 to March 20 this year.

Established in 1946, the CSW is an annual two-week session considered to be instrumental in promoting women’s rights around the world and in shaping the global standards on gender equality.  During the sessions, representatives of the UN, national governments, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) organize and engage on a central theme.

This year, in its 59th session, Akapo participated in discussions that were focused on the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action; which was ratified 20 years ago and is meant to achieve gender equality and empowerment for women across the globe.

This declaration was centralized around 12 key points, such as education/training of women and women in the media. Clear methods and actions were then strategically laid out at the declaration’s inception.

The goal of the declaration is to have all 12 of these key points implemented across the world by 2030.  Being that it has been 20 years since the declaration was initiated, this year’s session was meant to serve as a check-in and an update.

2015 also marks the year where the UN was supposed to achieve its Millennium Development Goals; which include universal primary education and the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger. The promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women is also on this list, and being that most of these goals have not been achieved, discussion was also had about how to move forward.

Akapo, a graduate in International Development Studies, was selected to attend for her extensive work the Peterborough Haliburton YWCA; a local chapter of the world’s largest women’s organization that advocates for social change and gender equality.

As a member of the Peterborough Board of Directors, Akapo was selected to attend the YWCA Canada Annual Member Meeting. At that meeting, she was then asked to join the Canada-Wide Young Women’s Engagement Task Force where she served as co-chair. Finally, impressed with her work, a branch of the YWCA offered her funding to attend the conference in New York.

Akapo was one of just 25 Canadian YWCA members to attend the event.  Being that it was her first time, Akapo said that she took on more of an observing and absorbing role at the main events. That being said, she did get to share some of her experience in Peterborough at some of the side events and discussions.

Akapo noted the importance of this aspect, with the connections made and the contacts gained, and said “I’m really glad I had my first year there to just absorb and learn as much as I can, so maybe next year I can come back and present. But even though this year I wasn’t able to talk at the front of the room, I went to a lot of events where I was able to speak and share my experiences.

“It’s not better, but it has just as much value and I made so many contacts. Somebody would tell me about this thing they’re doing in Bolivia, for instance, and I would get their information so I could keep in contact and maybe bring that back to Peterborough.”

When asked if there was anything specific that she would be bringing back to Peterborough, Akapo noted that she had taken in such a vast amount of information and hadn’t really had the opportunity to sort it all out yet.

One thing she did mention as something she wants to work on, however, is getting girls and women involved in politics. She also said that a key feature of this is to have women who are already in a position of power help to get other women involved.

At this point, when asked how it she got involved with the work she does, Akapo said “I guess I’ve always been a feminist and an activist, but I never called myself that because I didn’t know that was a thing…I always spoke out against things I didn’t agree with, but it wasn’t until I came to Canada that somebody said you’re an activist. But with all the work I was doing, with volunteering and my studies, it was all based around this same type of activism.”

Akapo then talked about how important the YWCA has been for her, and how it was a catalyst that gave her so many resources. She also talked about how she was encouraged by a former mayoral candidate, Maryam Monsef, to get involved with the YWCA board.

“I have to say a huge thankyou to [Monsef] because she got me involved with the YWCA.  Maybe I would have got there eventually, but she sat on the board and we had had conversations in the past and she knew where I stood on everything.  Then she just called me one day and said the YWCA was looking for young women.”

Akapo also wanted to encourage any young women looking to get involved to come to the YWCA, but more than that, “Let your voice be heard…if you see a need or there’s something you want to do, don’t let somebody tell you you can’t do it because you’re too young.  Just let your voice be heard.”

She continued, “You are your future.  What you do now is going to affect your life in 20 years, if you wait until you’re 20, for instance, you’re letting people older than you make decisions that are going to affect you when you’re 20.  If you’re [a young women] and you’re seeing issues, address them now… I know how cheesy the future is now sounds, but it is.”

Finally, Akapo also talked about how important it is for those who are fighting to know that they’re not alone.  This was something that she said she truly realized while being a part of the UN commission.

According to Akapo, “Sometimes you sit back and think am I the only one who is doing this work? Then, you go to this conference and see women all across the world who are doing this, not just the YWCA. It was really incredible to feel a part of this global sisterhood, and brotherhood, there were a lot of men involved as well. Personhood I guess. It’s really nice to know that there are people around the world who all see the same issues.”