Thu, Apr 04, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Springtime for grassroots diplomacy

Gender equality activism is expanding Taiwan’s confined diplomatic space, and the government is taking notice

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

Lin Ching-i, a Democratic Progressive Party legislator, has attended parallel events at the UN Commission on the Status of Women since 2012.

Photo: Davina Tham, Taipei Times

Springtime in New York carries waves of diplomats into town to attend the annual meetings of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the UN’s principal body promoting gender equality.

Before her first time at the meetings this March, Sabrina Hsieh (謝璿), like most young Taiwanese, had only a remote understanding of the country’s diplomatic isolation and its exclusion from the UN since 1971.

“There was a little sadness because in that setting, you are nobody. You can’t even happily say to others, ‘Hi, I’m from Taiwan.’ You have to study their expression and then decide how frank you want to be with them,” Hsieh says.

At home, the third-year university student is a youth activist for women’s economic empowerment. Last month, assisted by the Foundation for Women’s Rights Promotion and Development, she traveled to New York to attend unofficial civil society events held concurrently with the official UN meetings.

Taiwan has for decades been forced to pursue alternative pathways to participate in the international community. The best alternatives capitalize on Taiwan’s strengths and draw on sustained work being done even without government intervention. Efforts toward women’s empowerment and gender equality are emerging as an important locus for international participation.

Close to 50 Taiwanese representatives, chiefly comprising NGO professionals and academics, turned out in force for the UN Commission on the Status of Women this year. They build upon Taiwan’s 20-year presence at the forum, pioneered in 1999 by Chang Chueh (張玨), a veteran women’s rights activist.

With more breathing space than officials, gender equality activists are in a position to enlarge Taiwan’s role in the international community, and the government is taking notice.

Hsieh got to introduce an international audience to her work, and returned home eager to do even more for women and girls here.


The UN does not allow Taiwanese passport-holders to enter UN buildings where official meetings are held. Its participation is limited to the unofficial parallel events — spaces for NGOs commonly held on the sidelines of major UN conferences.

There are a few exceptions. Some of Taiwan’s most experienced advocates have positions in international NGOs that can open doors to observe official meetings. Delegates with dual nationality can also enter using another passport from a UN member state.

But in unofficial settings like the parallel events, doing the work matters more than having the right passport. And this works in Taiwan’s favor.

When it comes to gender equality, Taiwan has considerable clout as a progressive Asian society. While its reputation is headlined by the 2016 election of Taiwan’s first female president and an impressively high 38.1 percent of legislative seats are held by women, grassroots work rather than political representation is what keeps the conversation going with other countries.

“I do believe that exchanges at the citizen level and among NGOs are more powerful than diplomacy,” says Chi Hui-jung (紀惠容), CEO of the Garden of Hope Foundation.

The foundation’s parallel event this year — socio-cultural attitudes that blame and shame victims of sexual violence — rode the momentum of the #MeToo movement to examine gender-based sexual violence in Asian communities, with speakers from Taiwan, Japan and the foundation’s New York arm.

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