BPW UN History


The History of BPW & United Nations

International Federation of Business and Professional Women is deeply involved is with the work of United Nations, specifically UN Commission on Status of Women, since its conception.  This brief history of BPW and UN aims to enlighten people on how BPW contributed to the United Nations, especially through the leadership positions in the United Nations and in NGO-CSW in New York and Vienna.


IFBPW was among the first group of NGOs to gain consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 1947.  This happened because of the foresight of Esther Hymer (1898 – 2001) who attended the founding of the United Nations and ceased the opportunities to influencing or influenced depending on other word queried the policies of the newly formed United Nations.  IFBPW applied for Consultative Status with the UN ECOSOC in 1945.

When the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was founded in June 1946, the Commission’s mandate was to “prepare recommendations and reports to the Economic and Social Council on promoting women's rights in political, economic, civil, social and educational fields” and to make recommendations “on urgent problems requiring immediate attention in the field of women’s rights.”

The Commission forged a close relationship with non-governmental organizations in consultative status with ECOSOC were invited to participate as observers. This, of course, includes IFBPW.


IFBPW voices began to be heard at the UN CSW through written statements by Esther Hymer IFBPW Representative to UN.


The Commission focused on promoting the participation of women in Development.

Helvi Sipilä (1915-2009), a representative from Finland as well as member of BPW Finland, served in the United Nations CSW as its Vice-Chairperson and Chairperson (the post she held until early 1970s). In 1968, she was nominated as Special Rapporteur for the Status of Women and Family Planning project and launched numerous studies on this subject.



This is the Golden Decade for IFBPW in working with the United Nations. IFBPW played important roles at both the International Women’s Year and the First Women World Conference in Mexico.

Helvi Sipilä became the first woman to be appointed Assistant Secretary-General in 1972.  She also served as the Secretary-General for the First World Conference on Women held in Mexico City in 1975. The CSW served as secretariat to organize this conference.  In her opening statement she expressed her hope that it would set a precedent for equal representation of women and men in all future international meetings, whether on political or economic affairs, on disarmament, trade or human settlement.

Esther Hymer became the first chair of NGO Committee on Status of Women New York (NGO CSW New York) in 1972.  On behalf of IFBPW, Esther, along with others, called for an International Women’s Year in 1975.   She was also elected chairperson of the NGO Committee of the International Women’s Year in 1975, a post she held from 1972-1982.

As a follow up to a recommendation from the first Women World Conference, United Nations declared 1976-1985 the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace.  Esther was appointed Chair for the Decade for Women, a post she held from 1976-1985. 

In this Decade of Women, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was drafted by the Commission and adopted by the General Assembly in 1979.  The NGO Committee on Status of Women Geneva (NGO CSW Geneva) was founded in 1973 (initially it was formed as a sub-committee).



The Second Women World Conference was held in Copenhagen in 1980. The Third Women World Conference was held in Nairobi in 1985 to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the UN Decade for Women. The CSW served as secretariat to organize both conferences.

During the Decade of Women, three more UN entities working on Women’s issues were established: The Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), The United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW).

Helvi Sipilä was instrumental in the founding of UNIFEM, then known as the United Nations Voluntary Fund for the Advancement of Women.

Claire Fulcher, IFBPW representative to the United Nations who was trained personally by Esther Hymer, was also the founding convener of the NGO Committee on UNIFEM, where she served until 1994.

In 1982, the NGO Committee on Status of Women Vienna (NGO CSW Vienna) was founded. In its first four years, Marlene Parenzan, a member of BPW Austria, served as Vice Chair of Vienna NGO Committee on Status of Women, though she was then representing World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGG).

During 1986-1991 Marlene Parenzan became Chair of Vienna NGO Committee on Status of Women for two consecutive terms from 1986-1991. Division on Advancement of Women (DAW) was still based in Vienna. She worked on organizing the first NGO consultations prior and/or parallel to meetings of the CSW. She met and worked with Esther Hymer who attended most CSW meetings then. As preparations for the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 started at DAW in Vienna, she has the honor of serving as NGO-Co-ordinator to accompany the UN delegation to Beijing and discuss NGO participation with the Chinese hosts following intensive contacts with the Mission here in Vienna. Her work as NGO co-ordinator for the Planning Committee ended when the CSW moved to New York in 1993.

In 1987, Esther Hymer accepted the “Peace Messenger” certificate from UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar in 1987 on behalf of IFBPW in recognition of a significant contribution to the programme and the objectives of the International Year of Peace.



The Commission and its secretariat led the preparation of the Fourth Women World Conference, which was held in Beijing, China in September 1995. It coordinated the negotiations on the draft Beijing Platform for Action in a very participatory and comprehensive manner, including five regional preparatory meetings in 1994 and several NGO meetings.  

Helvi Sipilä and the then BPW International President Livia Ricci, Yvette Swan (Immediate Past BPW International President), Sylvia Perry (Regional Coordinator Europe), Pat Harrison (Regional Coordinator Asia Pacific), Claire Fulcher and many other BPW members were among the approximately 30,000 individuals who attended the independent NGO Forum 1995 held in Huairou, 50 miles from the main UN Conference in Beijing.

In 1996, Claire Fulcher founded the NGO Committee on Mental Health (New York).

In 1997, Esther Hymer was named as one of three women playing a significant role in the work of the UN Commission by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.  In thanking her for her contribution he said,

“Still active in promoting women’s equality, Mrs Hymer represents the best tradition of NGO activism in the United Nations.”

This was the same year that the Office of the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI) was established. 

BPW International Presidents and Vice Presidents for UN began to attract more BPW members to attending CSW, even when they were not the official IFBPW representatives to United Nations.

In the letter that Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of United Nations, wrote to Esther Hymer on the 100th Birthday of in 1999, he stated that:

''For half a century, as the representative of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women at the United Nations, you actively promoted the concerns of women. Your untiring efforts influenced almost all the resolutions of the General Assembly and its subsidiary bodies which affect the status of women.''



In 2002, Eva Richter joined BPW New York and under the guidance of Claire Fulcher, became IFBPW representative at the UN in 2003. In 2008, Eva also recommended and guided Susan O’Malley to become IFBPW representative at the UN in New York. Susan later on became the current Chair of NGO-CSW New York.

Marlene Parenzan, IFBPW Representative to UN Vienna and member of BPW Austria, was again elected to serve as Chair of NGO CSW Vienna  (VNGOCSW) during 2009-2011. Besides business as usual and attending the CSW in NY, she actively participated in the Global Conference on AIDS and the Conferences on Gender Medicine, spoke at the Civil Society Forum about “Women and Education for Leadership” and organized celebrations for “100 Years of International Women’s Day”.

In 2008 Claire Fulcher was honored in 2008 for 20 years of work and as the founding member and convener of the NGO Committee of UNIFEM 1988-1994.  

Through the promotion by BPW International Presidents and Vice Presidents for UN and (then) the flexible UN regulation that allowed unlimited number of members of NGOs to participate at UN CSW, the total number of BPW members world-wide who attended the annual UN CSW grew from less than 20 to over 240 persons. They have enjoyed attending hundreds of side-events organized by governments and/or NGOs and later also organized workshops both inside and outside the UN Headquarters in New York.  Other BPW activities were organized for those who came to UN CSW including the BPW dinner (which later was named “Claire Fulcher Dinner”) and the BPW Leaders’ Summit.

At regional level, BPW members also participated in meetings to follow up on the Beijing Platform for Action such as Beijing+5 (year 2000), Beijing+10 (year 2005) and Beijing+15 (year 2010).



In 2011, the four parts of the UN system (DAW, INSTRAW, OSAGI and UNIFEM) merged to become UN Women.  UN Women is now the secretariat of the Commission on the Status of Women.  In 2015, the Summit on Sustainable Development in New York agreed on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be reached by 2030. Gender Equality was one of the 17 goals.

In 2014, Eva Richter was honored for her UN work by BPW in 2014 and received the Esther W. Hymer Award in 2015 for her outstanding commitment and her contribution as Permanent UN Representative in New York during 2003-2014.

In June 2015, Susan O’Malley, IFBPW representative at the UN in New York, was elected as the 11th Chair of NGO CSW/New York. She was again re-elected in 2017 to serve for two more years.  During her first two years, she increased the participation of BPW members, educated them more about issues at the UN and involved them in the Planning Committee for CSW and the monthly meetings on issues of importance on the empowerment of women.  She helped working on establish NGO CSW in 5 regions of the world, parallel CSWs to Geneva, Vienna and New York. Through these CSWs, Advocacy training sessions were organized in the 5 global regions. Through her leadership, NGO CSW/New York published A Guide for NGOs and Women’s Human Rights Activists at the UN and CSW, which has been translated into Spanish, French, Russian, and Arabic.  Usage of technology to ease the access of information on hundreds of parallel events which made a debut for UN CSW 62nd session were highly appreciate by thousands of participants. 

In this decade, United Nations has changed the regulations to limit NGOs participation to CSW to 20 persons per organization (D20), over a hundred BPW members still come to New York prior to and at the same time to organize and attend varieties of BPW side events as well as attending BPW Leaders’ Summit. 

During 2017-2020 Triennium, BPW International theme focused specifically on “Empowering Women to realize the Sustainable Development Goals”.

Starting in 2020, the Covid-19 Pandemic forced most of the United Nations meetings and conferences to be held virtually.  BPW Representatives continued to work with United Nations under the “new normal” circumstance.   UN CSW was held face-to-face only for one day in March 2020.  However BPW representatives to United Nations remain actively involved in BPW work.

BPW still continue to improve the status of women and continue to work closely with the United Nations and work partnership with many international organizations.  The ways BPW collaborates with United Nations would be subjected to change during and after the pandemic.  However, the goals to empower women shall remain unchanged for decades to come.


BPW International would like thanks Dr. Catherine Bosshart, Sylvia Perry, Marlene Parenzan and Susan O’Malley for review and revise this article. Their written reports and/or publications served as important references for the original article “A Brief History of BPW & UN Commission on Status of Women” by Dr. Chonchanok Viravan, which was published in BPW International Asia-Pacific Regional Conference 2018 Conference Booklet, October 2018.