Impressions of the CSW 58th Session

By Janice Goodson Foerde, KULU

The Commission on the Status of Women’s 58th Session (CSW) took place in NYC in March, 2014. It was once again a session filled with a mix of suspense, frustrations, and good experiences. The session was supposed to end at 6 p.m. on Friday, March 22, but an extra 8 hours of negotiations were necessary to adopt – but just barely – the final document, Agreed Conclusions, in the early hours of the 23rd.

It was important to agree on a final document because it can be used as a guide for formulating the post-2015 development agenda, in the context of the continued review and critique of the present Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and as input to the review of the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA, 1995) and the BPFA’s periodic updates.

It is also a relatively strong document. All claims that support the MDGs (including MDG3, the goal for gender equality and women’s empowerment) and underscore that equality, the human rights of women and their empowerment are essential to development. Even the Holy See claims this. But there were and are many contentious issues because there are many different perceptions of the concepts of equality and women’s and girls’ rights.

Many contentions

The contentious issues were many. Some of the main sticky points in concepts were:
• “the family”, which conservatives and fundamentalists wanted to define as a man and woman with children;
• “sexual and reproductive health and rights” (SRHR) where many religious conservatives don’t want to associate ‘rights’ together with ‘sexuality’.
• Even “women’s rights” are contentious at the CSW, where some wanted to delete from a number of paragraphs or prefer to use the “human rights of women” instead.
• “Gender equality” – the Holy See wanted to remove the word gender from the text and replace it with ‘men and women’ instead because ‘gender’ can open the door for interpretation. Therefore “gender identity and gender stereotypes” remain contentious words for fundamentalists.
• “Sexual orientation” didn’t have the slightest chance for being included in this year’s Agreed Conclusions.
• “Comprehensive Sexuality Education” was a battleground, which also a number of African countries were against – according to the Africa Group’s spokesperson from Djibouti – although a number of African countries include comprehensive sexuality education as part of their policies and curricula.
• Another contentious concept is “harmful cultural and traditional practices”, where many wanted to remove ‘cultural’ and/or ‘traditional’ and only keep ‘harmful’ practices because it is a sovereign right for a country to have its own culture, traditions and laws – regardless of how harmful and repressive they may be for women, girls and adolescents.
• Even “early” in “early, child or forced marriages” was objectable for a number of countries.

There were also other disagreements. Many countries on the Global South, governments and CSOs, wanted to include the “right to development”, but the Global North didn’t want it. This is regrettable because compromises on this might have facilitated more support on the various human rights’ issues.

This CSW was labeled as a “giant leap backwards” for the “rights of Indigenous peoples” by Indigenous people activists. Indigenous people was deleted by Canada, Australia and others, who see the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as an obstacle to resource extraction. UNDRIP is important; especially Article 19 which requires fair, prior informed consent before extractive industries can operate.

A very important and worrying observation this year was the visible disconnect in the African Group. Djibouti was spokesperson on the Agreed Conclusions; and Malawi on the HIV/AIDS Resolution. The permanent representatives stationed in NYC tend to be more conservative than their countries’ policies warrant. They seemed to run their own club this time, holding meetings without the rest of the African Group and taking positions counter to the agreements made about two months earlier in Addis Ababa, to other African regional meetings prior to the 58th CSW, the Maputo Agreement and others. The African Union called three emergency sessions for African ambassadors/delegations to inform them about African ‘agreed language’ which they were rapidly losing and deleting. On Wednesday, three days before the end of the session, Djibouti was asked not to continue to represent the African Group, and individual countries were encouraged to speak up in addition to the groups’ spokespersons in order to voice own policies. Egypt and South Africa did this, as did a few other African countries. In spite of this Djibouti continued to speak on behalf of the whole Group.

Looking backwards or forward?

Although there is a commonality in the practical and strategic needs and demands for women’s and girls’ rights and empowerment, the concept, perception and definition of gender equality and women’s empowerment and the conditions for achieving gender equality are very different from country to country and from organization to organization.

Two years ago it was not possible to adopt an output document, Agreed Conclusions (AC), when the main topic was rural women’s development. Last year the AC was just barely adopted, when the priority topic was “violence against women and girls”! The difficulties continued this year again.

Progressive, like-minded governments and international government organizations are so scared of the conservative and fundamentalist backlash that they concentrate on struggling to maintain texts that were adopted 20 years ago in the Beijing Platform for Action and the International Conference on Population and Development’s plan of action. This maybe is understandable under these circumstances; however, the problem is how can we utilize a transformative and comprehensive approach to advance gender equality and women’s and girls’ rights and empowerment, when we’re always looking backwards? By standing still, women’s and girls’ rights and gender equality are being pushed backwards. We need to move forward and make new gains, while maintaining the rights achieved so far. For this consultation, coordination, and alliance building is needed among women’s rights organizations and activists across all CSO-sectors.

By Janice Goodson Foerde, development consultant and chairperson of KULU-Women and Development-Denmark, and CSO-advisor on the Danish Delegation. KULU is the Danish national platform for WIDE+

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