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CSW58 – Too Much Time Spent Pushing Back

FRIDAY FILE – This year’s negotiations at the 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW58) saw women’s rights advocates, organisations and movements working extremely hard to retain existing human rights language, obligations and commitments, and attempting to push forward language that contained clear commitments for gender equality and women’s human rights; but present also, were strong fundamentalist forces pushing back on any, and all, advancement of rights language.

By Susan Tolmay and Alejandra Scampini[i]

The priority theme for CSW58 that took place in New York from 10 – 21 March 2014 was Challenges and Achievements in the Implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for Women and Girls. Women’s rights activists saw this as an opportunity to learn from the limitations of the MDGs process and to advocate for a new development agenda, post 2015 when the MDGs come to an end, that is premised on the universality of human rights, substantive equality, and a redistributive framework that reduces inequalities of wealth, power and resources.

Current context of increasing backlash and fundamentalist forces

When assessing the Agreed Conclusions of the CSW58, it is not as simple as gains and losses, because negotiations at the CSW are far more complex than that; and reducing it to success and failure misses the important dynamics and geopolitics at play in this, often contested, space. Agreed conclusions “contain an analysis of the priority theme and a set of concrete recommendations for governments, intergovernmental bodies and other institutions, civil society actors and other relevant stakeholders, to be implemented at the international, national, regional and local level.” The opposition was strong this year and all rights related language was debated.

The document importantly recognises that “almost 15 years after the MDGs were launched, no country has achieved equality for women and girls, and significant levels of inequality between women and men persist”[ii] also highlighting that several critical issues were not adequately included in the MDGs, including violence against women and girls; child, early and forced marriage; women’s and girls’ disproportionate share of unpaid work, particularly unpaid care work; women’s access to decent work, the gender wage gap, employment in the informal sector, low paid and gender-stereotyped work such as domestic and care work; women’s equal access to, control and ownership of assets and productive resources including land, energy and fuel, and women’s inheritance rights; women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights.[iii]

Largely fighting to keep what we already have, with limited progress

AWID’s first reactions to the zero draft of the Agreed Conclusions (ACs) outlined five areas that needed to be addressed for a bold, just and transformational development agenda post-2015. Our initial analysis showed that while there was some progress, there is still a long way to go in most areas.

While the Commission recognised the world financial and economic crises, and its adverse impact on development and achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)[iv], it did not go far enough to recognize the structural root causes of gender inequality and impoverishment and failed to make the link between economics and development, underscore the need for a development paradigm shift, nor the need for regulation and to hold those responsible accountable. On the positive side, the Commission recognized the need to address “the multiple and intersecting factors contributing to the disproportionate impact of poverty on women and girls over their lifecycle, including women’s equal access to full and productive employment and decent work, women’s full participation and integration in the formal economy, equal pay for equal work or work of equal value, and equal sharing of unpaid work[v]“.

In terms of putting human rights at the centre development debates, the Agreed Conclusions reaffirmed Cairo Programme of Action as well as the Beijing Platform of Action, but unfortunately failed to recognise the landmark Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA) of the World Conference on Human Rights that took place in Vienna 20 years ago. It was a defining moment for women’s rights and movements, it affirmed “The human rights of women and of the girl child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights”. And while paragraph 41 recognizes that all human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated and that the international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, there was lack of recognition, throughout the two-week negotiations, of the indivisibility of human rights. Rights advocates are appalled at the geopolitics at play and how States use issues as bargaining chips, clauses related to development and human rights are pitted against the rights of people discriminated because of their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), which shows a clear disconnect in the understanding of the indivisibility of human rights.

Specific language related to the violence and discrimination that people face because of their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) was excluded despite the principles of human rights, which embody non-discrimination as a core principle for human rights to be guaranteed. Diverse human rights advocates, organisations and movements have expressed outrage at the way governments use geopolitics to make decisions that affect women’s lives, in their CSW58: Statement Of The Lesbian, Bisexual, And Trans* Caucus And Allies statement they say: “We all know that sexual orientation and gender identity have been an undercurrent in the discussions on a number of “controversial” issues. And we are tired of the willful ignorance, tepid support or overt bowing to geopolitical pressures that make simple recognition of our lives and communities impossible” in closing they say, “The recognition and fulfillment of the rights and needs of all groups, regardless of sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression, is a crucial step towards sustainable development of all nations. It is time for governments to acknowledge what we all know to be true.”

The Agreed Conclusions do recognize the importance of investments in “quality comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care” including emergency contraception, information and education, safe abortion where allowed by law, and prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections and HIV. Furthermore, the Conclusions called for the recognition of the human rights of women to “decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality... free from coercion, discrimination, and violence.” Yet, key human rights principles of progressive realization, maximum available resources, non-retrogression, minimum essential levels/minimum core obligations, accountability and transparency, extraterritorial obligations, and non-discrimination and equality were deleted.

There is strong language on violence against women and girls (VAWG), including explicit reference to eliminating all harmful practices, including – female genital mutilation (FGM), child, early and forced marriage, through enacting and enforcing laws[vi] but there is no clear link made to conflict, militarization, and the rise in fundamentalisms. The ACs do however call for measures to be adopted to implement and monitor the MDGs for women and girls in armed conflict and post-conflict situations, and women and girls affected by violent extremism. It specifically calls to “end impunity by ensuring accountability and punishing perpetrators of the most serious crimes against women and girls under national and international law, and ensure that alleged perpetrators of those crimes are held accountable under national justice or, where applicable, international justice[vii]".

With regards to protecting women human rights defenders (WHRDs), while this year’s Commission acknowledges the public and legitimate role of WHRDs in promoting and protecting human rights, democracy, rule of the law and development and the need to take appropriate, robust and practical steps to protect them[viii], the Commission missed the opportunity to include language related to ending the specific forms of impunity for harassment, criminalization and aggression that WHRDs experience.

In terms of ensuring strong mechanisms for accountability, monitoring and evaluation the ACs recognize that accountability mechanisms for the MDGs were weak, and there is a need for accountability for violations of human rights of women and girls[ix], but reference to the accountability of state and non-state actors for the promotion of gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment was excluded from the final ACs, as was language to ensure access to remedies, reparation and redress. While section E relates to ensuring women’s participation and leadership at all levels and strengthening accountability, the word accountability doesn’t appear anywhere other than in the title.

Financing for women’s human rights (WHRs), gender equality and women’s empowerment was absent from the MDGs. During CSW negotiations, AWID and other activists of the WHRs Caucus insisted on the inclusion of financing and resourcing as a specific area of concern. While we are pleased with the direct reference to gender-responsive budgeting and gender audits, and a section on Maximizing investments in gender equality and the empowerment of women[x], this is not enough. We will continue to lobby for this priority to ensure that States comply with current commitments, and make financing for women’s human rights central in further Post-2015 processes including financing for development debates.

Looking ahead

Women’s rights activists welcome the explicit reference to the need to learn lessons from the MDGs in shaping the post-2015 development, calling on States to “tackle critical remaining challenges through a transformative and comprehensive approach and calls for gender equality, the empowerment of women and human rights of women and girls to be reflected as a stand-alone goal and to be integrated through targets and indicators into all goals of any new development framework.[xi]"

Women’s rights advocates will continue to advocate in upcoming negotiation spaces including the Open Working Group (OWG) negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the International Conference on Population Development (ICPD) 20 years after Cairo and other processes that link directly to negotiations Post 2015 Development Agenda to call for a comprehensive women’s rights and human rights centered development agenda.

[i] AWID will soon publish an in-depth analysis of the CSW agreed conclusions on which this article is based. Stay tuned in for this upcoming analysis.

[ii] Ibid para 12

[iii] ibid, para 28

[iv] CSW Agreed Conclusions para 35

[v] Ibid, para A (k)

[vi] ibid, para 28 and A (m)

[vii] Ibid para B (ss)

[viii] Ibid para B (f)

[ix] Ibid para 28, A (c),

[x] ibid 38, C (aaa) and (bbb)

[xi] Ibid 43