Is it make-or-break time for gender equality?

3rd July 2015

The Commission on the Status of Women is over for another year and feminists are demanding stronger political commitment.

“The year 2015 is the start of a make-or-break period for gender equality and women’s empowerment. We have to complete the work of the last 20 years. There is a great deal of unfinished business.

These were the words of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women at the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW59).

The annual event took place in New York City from 9-20 March 2015 and marked the 20 year anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women. More than 17,000 advocates for women’s rights from around the world gathered in Beijing, China for the 1995 event.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which came out of the Fourth World Conference called on governments, the international community and civil society to take strategic action on 12 areas of concern, including women and health, violence, the economy, the environment and decision-making.

CSW59 took stock of progress and remaining challenges for the implementation of the Declaration and Platform for Action, as well as addressing opportunities for gender equality progress and the empowerment of women in the post-2015 development agenda.

Popular topics of discussion included sexual and gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health and rights, the engagement men and boys for gender equality, women’s economic empowerment, conflict and political participation.

Over 8,000 people attended CSW59 and the hundreds of side events which took place around the United Nations headquarters. But many civil society representatives felt short changed, especially as the CSW political declaration was drafted weeks before the event even started, shutting them out of the decision making process.

The CSW59 declaration “is weak and general, and does not go far enough towards the kind of transformative change necessary to truly achieve the promises made in Beijing two decades ago…”

Another area of contention at CSW59 was discussions about how the Commission works. It was argued that most of the negotiations around the working methods resolution took place before the event. However, activists lobbied hard during the event in an attempt to influence the resolution and gain more civil society representation in CSW’s processes before it was finalised in the second week, many staying up late into the night, waiting outside as the negotiations rumbled on.

“No reference to women’s and feminist group’s involvement in negotiations at the CSW was left in the resolution, and there are real fears that this resolution, along with the pre-negotiated Declaration, increase the risk that women’s rights activists will be systematically excluded from real involvement in the outcomes of the Commission moving forward,“ wrote Shameem.

The disappointment in the CSW59 processes was reflected in a statement reflecting anger at the increasingly limited space for feminist and women's organisations to influence the outcomes of the session: “In a context of increasing attacks on the human rights of women and girls and closing space for civil society at all levels, from the national to the global, we had held up the CSW as a place where we could express our views and influence the development of critical policies that affect our lives and futures. Instead, it seems that governments are intent on closing even that door by trying to limit the robust participation of non-governmental organizations, restrict recognition of the human rights of women and girls and the norm-setting role of the CSW in this regard and skirt responsibility for implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. It seems they are intent on discussing everything about us, without us.”

“If the CSW no longer provides us with a forum for policy change and accountability that fully involves us, we will stay at home,” the statement warned.

The Sustainable Development Goals will be finalised later in 2015 and women’s rights advocates will be working hard to influence this process and hold their national governments to account in its implementation. Some are also pushing for a Fifth World Conference on women, hoping to build on the legendary Beijing event and push for the progress some felt CSW59 was lacking.

Photo: International Women's Day march, 8 March 2015 in New York City. By UN Women, used under a CC License.