How UN CSW can make Post-2015 more relevant to women’s rights

This entry posted by Shawna Wakefield (@ShawnaWakefield), Oxfam's Senior Gender Justice Lead, and Caroline Green, Oxfam Gender Policy Advisor, on 26 March 2015.

A breakthrough agreement was made for gender equality and women’s rights 20 years ago in Beijing, known as the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA). From March 9 to 20, government ministers met in New York for the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), to present a Political Declaration that summed up the achievements of the last two decades and committed to achieving gender equality by 2030.

Most of the estimated 8600 civil society representatives that came to CSW came to demand more from their governments than a reiteration of what was ambitiously agreed in 1995. They also recognize that achieving gender equality by 2030 requires a significant increase in implementation, changes in social norms and recognition of the role of movements in how transformation happens.

At minimum, a cessation of the regular and systematic violation of women’s human rights – from sexual and reproductive health and rights, to economic discrimination, to violence against women, backlash against human rights defenders, and the impact of religious fundamentalisms on women’s freedoms – is urgent.    In a context where CSW is the only multi-lateral space dedicated to the advancement of women’s rights, it is time to recognize:

  • the centrality of women’s movements in achieving positive change
  • social norms change is needed to stop the roll back on gains already won  
  • Post 2015 as an opportunity to advance objectives of BPfA (and make amends for the shortcomings of the MDGs)

Centrality of women’s movements in achieving positive change

As in other years at CSW, an inter-generational collage of feminist activists, human rights defenders, INGO staffers, leaders of women’s rights movements around the world, and private sector representatives lobbied, strategized and re-connected. But this year, instead of the usual Agreed Conclusions outcome document, a Political Declaration was announced on day 1 of the official meetings. Around 1,000 women’s rights and feminist activists and organizations – and others standing in solidarity with them, including Oxfam - were dissatisfied and issued a statement to this effect. These groups were expecting more than a reiteration of general commitments to gender equality but a more ambitious plan, with targets and indicators, for dismantling patriarchy and the deeply held social norms that keep it in place.

Given the lack of proper negotiations, other statements expressed discontent with the lack of inclusion of civil society. The youth caucus, for instance, raised visibility of the need to recognize their issues not as younger versions of those identified 20 years (or more) ago, but reflective of their particular concerns (#WhatYouthWant). An inter-generational dialogue was organized to reflect the need for shared learning, collaboration and cross-fertilization across generations.

We do need to celebrate the achievements since Beijing, catalysed and secured by women’s rights activists and movements. Some barriers have been broken for generations to come, including more constitutions that guarantee gender equality, more laws to guarantee equality, and more laws criminalizing violence against women (VAW). But, as noted from the coalition statements  and in bilateral and small group meetings during the weeks, the critical and unequivocal role women’s organizations, feminist organizations and women human rights defenders in pushing for gender equality, the human rights and empowerment of women and girls has been under-recognized.

If the CSW and development actors in general don’t take this reality on board more seriously, it makes it more difficult to leverage achievements for lasting change.

Now needed are new ways of convening, and bringing together new actors and norm setters, spaces to educate ourselves about the geopolitics and economics of today, to analyse power and to strategize about how to influence changes that will last. This requires resourcing, space and political support for women to come together and shape agendas (as pointed out in a small gathering of women’s human rights leaders organized by JASS during CSW.

Social norms change to stop the roll back on gains already won

Unfortunately some at UN CSW were there specifically to undo hard won achievements on women’s rights. Among the trends seen since Beijing is the rise of religious fundamentalisms, including through the targeting of youth. New forms of social media and strategic communications are reaching wider audiences more quickly than ever before, with both positive and harmful effects on women’s rights. This plays out at CSW too. The proliferation of young people advancing these conservative agendas was visible, among those advocating for a roll back of political language that supports rights beyond hetero-normative family units or that secure sexual and reproductive health and rights.  

Ending violence against womenAn Oxfam and AWID panel on the subject of religious fundamentalisms, development and gender equality discussed a shared concern about the use of religion to violate women’s rights – including freedom of movement, leadership and participation in public life, sexual health and reproductive rights, access to resources and use of religion to justify violence. We looked at the issues in different contexts, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Latin America, the Middle East and trends globally in recognition of the fact that religious fundamentalism is a global phenomenon, and the fact that nowhere is culture static or owned only by one group.

Wider than this, however, is the concern that discrimination against women is being reinforced, or newly justified. We need to strengthen our analysis of the interconnections between gender, religion, culture, diversity, and development. This is an important basis for challenging discriminatory attitudes, behaviours, beliefs and social norms that undermine the advancement of gender equality and women’s rights. It will require both solidarity building across women’s and rights groups, based on the indivisibility of rights, as well as good power analyses of which new coalitions, decision makers, faith leaders and groups are supportive of women’s rights, and media can be influenced and mobilized to offer alternatives.

Post 2015 is an opportunity to advance objectives of BPfA (and make amends for the shortcomings of the MDGs)

This year includes negotiation of new sustainable development goals, and the anniversaries of Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, Beijing, and the MDGs. What is the significance of these processes, including CSW in this context? Big issues are at stake, but are these multi-lateral processes up to it or even appropriate for facilitating, influencing or supporting the kind of changes needed today?

The UN CSW of the last two weeks did not mobilize the kind of political energy seen in Beijing in 1995, but there is still conviction that this space needs to work and multi-lateral action is still needed. In Oxfam we are putting more emphasis on national level change and influencing, and the current system is not working well enough, but year after year our partners and many other activists tell us that we need to be there. Indeed, Joanne Sandler and Anne Marie-Goetz, for instance, spoke convincingly to the need for a 5th world conference on women.

In the meantime, this week, the UN is engaging in another round of international negotiations on the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals. Specifically, Member States are discussing the goals, targets and indicators for the new framework. With some States trying to open up the agreed goals and targets in the Open Working Group, women’s rights groups are highlighting that there is potentially much too lose in terms of the gender equality goal and gender equality targets on the table. It is critical that these broad targets agreed in the Open Working Group process, covering a range of the structural barriers women face from unpaid care and VAW through to participation and SRHR, are retained in the final Post-2015 framework.

So far this week, the majority of States have called for the goals and targets to not be reopened. And in addition, many such as Ecuador (on behalf of the bloc of Latin American countries), EU, Mexico, Germany, El Salvador, Serbia and Liberia highlighted the critical importance of gender mainstreaming throughout the framework, including through the use of strong indicators for the gender equality targets, and sex disaggregated data for the indicators throughout.

The post-2015 framework can never cover the comprehensive and visionary agenda set out in Beijing, and CSW does need to re-invent itself to be up to the task of advancing women’s rights in the context of backlash and ever changing expressions of repression. But keeping women’s rights squarely on the agenda, collaborating directly with movements, and addressing the hard issues will ultimately be necessary to accelerate implementation of any and all agreements to advance gender equality.

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