What did (not) change this year at CSW59

The 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW59, 9-20 March 2015) concluded its work on Friday March 20th after two weeks of negotiations accompanied by high levels round tables, side events, parallel sessions, photo exhibitions, and a youth forum. Thousands of people, hundreds of events, and 273 NGOs statements uploaded on the UN Women's website.

The fortnight begun with the adoption of the political declaration on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and closed with an agreement reached by member states on the future organization and working methods for the commission towards the implementation of the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

The political declaration raised deep discontent and disappointment among NGOs, movements, unions and civil society at large. Although 'Express[ing] concern that progress has been slow and uneven (…) and recognize[ing] that 20 years after the Fourth World Conference on Women, no country has fully achieved equality and empowerment for women and girls (para. 4), the declaration both in language and substance remains very vague.

In response to the political declaration, 974 organizations from all over the world endorsed a statement defining the  political declaration unacceptable and a step backward, representing a 'bland reaffirmation of existing commitments' and  'failing to match the level of ambition in the Beijing declaration' (1).

The declaration envisages only two commitments at the end of the document, making reference to the engagement of 'all stakeholders for the achievement of gender equality and empowerment of women and girls and call upon them to intensify their efforts in this regard '.

Concern inevitably arises with regards to the role of the private and corporate sector within this political space. In a context where multi-stakeholder partnerships are becoming very topical (2), the language on accountability is fading out, and the financial resources available are limited, it is clear that not all the stakeholders have the same lobbying capacity and influencing power. It is even worse if the human rights language is completely excluded like in the CSW59 political declaration and no mention is made on how to frame such multi-stakeholder engagement.  

During a parallel event on 'Why public-private partnerships don't work ', one speaker clearly stated that the corporate sector is completely embedded inside the United Nations in any kind of negotiations, and the influence exercised on some of the UN highest offices is well known. Without enough resources, one could argue that the appealing force of private money will become stronger. How can this challenge be resisted or dealt with? Moreover, how could a constructive and fair dialogue even start among the various actors involved, if some of these actors -namely the civil society and the corporate sector - do not speak to each other while trade unions complain they are hardly mentioned and included in the process,  and the UN looks so unsecure/confused to make a partnership with Uber…?! (3). 
Differently than the political declaration, the working methods which member states agreed upon at the end of the CSW59 eventually pleased - although  not fully satisfied - civil society organizations as a 'better than nothing' agreement. In fact, the text at least addresses the role of the NGOs (para. 18, 19, 21), mentions 'human rights' and includes 'young girls'. It also recognizes inter-parliamentary contribution and encourages member states to include in their delegations technical experts and representatives from civil society at large.

In reality, during the negotiations, the disappointment of civil society reached very high levels.

In its oral statement, the Post2015 Women Coalition expressed its concern over the fact that during the negotiations the promotion of women's human rights were consistently excluded.

The same concern was shared by various ministerial delegations, as reported by the South African Minister of Social Development, Ms Bathabile Dlamini, who pointed out that ' the declaration (...) did not even once mention, the term Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights ' .

According to information coming from both the African and from the Asia and Pacific Caucuses, member states - especially African - had repeatedly asked during the negotiations to soften the language; various attempts (led by Russia and China and counterbalanced by Brasil, Chile, el Salvador and Uruguay) were also made to push back the participation of civil society and take the human rights language completely away, with the risk of further weakening the legitimacy and both the historical and legal value of the CEDAW convention.

On the other hand, when it comes to civil society as a whole, representatives of NGOs, movements and unions have been often complaining over the two weeks of lack of a common voice within civil society and lack of coordination between CSOs and the UN with the risk that everyone to loses an opportunity.  A human rights defender based in Zimbabwe (Shehnilla Mohammed, Coordinator of LGBT Human Rights Coalition) denounced the high degree of prejudices existing even within various groups of human rights defenders.
As a matter of fact, civil society and its pressure from the ground are key to mobilize and create the necessary change within society; without civil society no legal tool, international mechanism or policy measure can succeed (Euromed Feminist Initiative parallel event). This is why harmonizing the different voices and addressing the actual disintegration within the CSW mechanism is of paramount importance in order to make some concrete progress.
In other words, the huge machinery (CSW) and the poor results at level of nation states, together with the disappointing negotiations and the disconnection within civil society contributed to broaden the discouragement  in NY to the extent to which doubts were cast here and there on the capacity of UN, civil society and members states to maintain at least the achievements of the last 20 years.  

To move towards the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action as well as the Post-2015 development framework, the key issue remains 'addressing structural causes of poverty and inequality and multiple forms of discriminations' as put very clearly by the Post 2015 Women Coalition (4).

In this regard, SDGs are providing some positive signs as their targets re gender equality are considered more comprehensive and coherent than those of the MDGs. However indicators are not sufficient and financial resources are still inadequate (Gita Sen, High Level Round Table, From Mdgs to SDGs), not to mention the 'spectre' of the corporate influence leaning towards the agenda with respect to the environmental targets for instance (Caroline Lambert, YWCA, at the IWRAW-Asia & Pacific parallel event on SDGs). There is no way to make progress unless more resources are mobilized, especially with respect to the SDGs on gender equality. The UN Women budget is already known as a very limited one (Gita Sen).
CSW59 offered the stage to many different monologues. The only chorus heard was about the general disappointment. But maybe this is just the case for all multilateral negotiations. However, it is also important to acknowledge and celebrate the results achieved so far and not take them for granted. The UAE representative pointed out that ten years ago she woudn't be at CSW reporting about her country.

Women's empowerment is not only about/for women, it is about the whole society; and gender equality is not only about women's access to politics but it is about reducing the number of those at the bottom, in order to leave no women behind. This is the greatest challenge!

(by Angela Zarro, SID)



(1) The CSOs statement asks for a political declaration that reaffirm gender equality as a matter of human rights, commit to the ratification and implementation of Cedaw, recognize the critical role of women movements and organizations, commit to create an enabling environment and resources that allow women, movements, and HR defenders to work free from violence; highlight the link with the post 2015 agenda; ensure accountability for governemnts; address all the emerging challenges impeding gender equality.

(2) The word partnership is mentioned in 109 paragraphs in the zero draft document on the post 2015 agenda released last week, and PPPs are explicitly mentioned in paragraph 52 of the same document (Bhumika Muchala, TWN, at the parallel event on public-private partnerships).

(3) UN Women made a partnership with Uber to create one million jobs for women which has been highly criticized by the trade unions as not corresponding to what women want and need in order to achieve gender equality. The partnership has been then broken by UN Women after the International Transport Federation noted that Uber drivers often lack basic job protections like minimum wage and health care.

(4) 'We believe that implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action as well as the Post-2015 development framework must address structural causes of poverty and inequality and multiple forms of discrimination' Post 2015 Women Coalition Oral Statement.