CSW: Optimism in spite of Challenges and Results – Yes, We Could!

By Janice G Førde

The UN Commission on the Status of Women’s (CSW) 57th Session took place the first two weeks of March. These annual sessions of the CSW are used to monitor progress on the implementation of women’s rights and gender equality, focus on selected priority issues, and flag up and coming issues.

Since 2008 it has taken each year an increasingly longer time for member states to agree on a final consensus document, the Agreed Conclusions. This culminated in not being able to reach consensus at all on the final document last year. This year – in spite of the challenges and the suspense until the last moment – the CSW produced a useful Agreed Conclusions (AC).

Women’s rights and gender equality has been progressively rolled back in the ACs at the previous 5 CSW sessions due to conservative and fundamentalist UN member states and observers, also called the ‘unholy alliance’. They have been fighting women’s rights and concepts that were established almost 20 years ago at the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. It has even been difficult to reach consensus on otherwise straight-forward topics such as fighting maternal mortality.

This year’s priority topic was: “fighting violence against women and girls” (VAW/G), which should have been an easy topic for consensus – especially in light of some of the horrific cases of VAW/G which attracted international notoriety in India and elsewhere before the CSW session started this year.

In the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Equality, expectations and hopes for the 57th Session were cautiously positive before the CSW because of the comprehensive preparatory work done together with like-minded and progressive members of the EU, OECD, at the Danish UN Mission in NY, and with CSOs (Civil Society Organizations) like KULU-Women and Development. This preparatory work contributed to an initial zero draft of the Agreed Conclusions that raised the bar for the starting point of the negotiations, and finally resulted in Agreed Conclusions that can be used as a good tool for further work on fighting VAW/G.

Immediately prior to the CSW session, the annual NGO CSW Forum on March 3, which gathered a record number of CSOs, focused on the VAW/G theme as an introduction and final preparation for the following two weeks of parallel activities and negotiations. The atmosphere here was also positive and hopeful. This CSW 2013 was the largest ever with 6000 registered government delegations, UN organizations and CSOs. At the NGO Forum, the UN Women’s executive director Michelle Bachelet, her next-in-command Lakshmi Pure, and CSW vice-chair Carlos Garcia Gonzalez (El Salvador) were optimistic because of the large CSO support and participation. Their message was: “Women’s rights-CSOs are characterized by cooperation, coordination and sharing and are critical actors in the work to stop all forms for violence against women and girls and include men and boys in the solutions”.

In spite of many hot and sticky points during the two weeks of side events and negotiations, optimism turned out to be the right call. The controversial issues such as sexual and reproductive rights and health, the concepts of gender and gender equality, gender roles, stereotypes and sexual orientation were questioned and debated. The ‘unholy alliance’ was also well-prepared through networking and training conservative and fundamentalist representatives and groups in stopping progress in women’s rights, and they have access to many more resources than women’s rights CSOs have had. However, progressive women’s rights CSOs and governments took up the challenges. Starting negotiations with a stronger zero draft of the Agreed Conclusions helped to shift the lobby focus of the conservative opposition from concepts such as ‘gender’ or ‘stereotypes’ to other issues like ‘sexual orientation’, which did not make it into the final AC draft.

It was a battle all the way to the finish line. A final draft of the AC was presented as a “chair’s text” in the evening of the last day, not long before the session should have officially closed. A ‘chair’s text’ means, that the AC text must be agreed as it is or no agreement; no more negotiations. Libya was the last member state to withhold its support to the consensus document but finally gave in. Thereafter a number of conservative members recorded their ‘reservations’ with the Holy See presenting a really long list of reservations, but the majority in the plenary supported the ACs’ adoption and cheered the positive result. There were many closing statements and thanks. Among them, Michele Bachelet concluded “Yes, we could”.

We did manage to reach consensus on an acceptable final document this time – after long and hard negotiations. No one was happy about everything in the AC, but many good things were maintained in the document. Opposition remains to controversial issues that are important for realizing women’s rights and gender equality. Sexual orientation did not make it into the text. But the AC can be a good tool in advocacy and monitoring. So the task now is to continue cooperating and sharing with progressive forces in using the AC in advocacy to achieve the implementation of measures to stop violence against women and girls.

Janice G Førde, international development consultant, KULU chairperson, d. 20.4.13;

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