UN Commission on Status of Women, March 2014

The fifty-eighth session of the Commission on the Status of Women takes place at the United Nations Headquarters in New York from 10 to 21 March 2014. This is a guest post by Rowan Harvey about the negotiations over what goes into the “outcome document” at the end of the Commission. Rowan is the Women’s Rights Advocacy Adviser at ActionAid UK and a Governor at the LSE. She tweets at @RowanHarvey1.

This years’ United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) kicks off in New York on Monday and promises to give a fascinating insight into the current state of the global debate on the rights of women and girls.

It comes at a key moment as the UN leads a process to determine the framework that will replace the Millennium Development Goals – the plan that will decide which development issues will receive the world’s focus over the next 20 years.

The outcomes from CSW will feed into that process and will most likely be held up as reflecting the views of the world’s women and outlining their priorities.

The stakes really couldn’t get much higher. It’s ironic that while thousands of women’s rights activists will attend, the vast majority are unable to enter the formal negotiations and can only influence from the sidelines, because most of the decisions will be taken by government delegations, some of which are comprised entirely of men.

The shame is that there is almost complete consensus amongst the women’s rights activists as to which recommendations CSW should be putting forward in its annual outcomes document. There is unanimous support for issues such as ending violence against women and girls, realising women’s economic rights and comprehensive action in support of sexual and reproductive rights. The women attending know what they want but there’s real doubt over whether their governments are prepared to hear them.

The first drafts of the outcome document, seen by ActionAid, while giving space for measured optimism, show clearly how difficult the fight is likely to be. In the first lines, while some states are trying to hold on to past agreements on women’s rights, other countries have made clear that they are happy to abandon landmark international agreements, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. In effect, they want to roll back the clock by 20 years and stop the fight for gender equality in its tracks.

Yet there are some positive developments. This year European Union states have managed to come together and build consensus, which they weren’t able to do last year. British-based NGOs are pleased that the UK Government is engaging at a high level, with International Development Secretary of State Justine Greening attending alongside two other ministers, as the UK government’s agenda is closely aligned with the outcomes that civil society wants to see.

Equally, the Vatican, who last year proposed more amendments to the text than any other member, have this year proposed none. Women’s rights activists are hoping that this signals a new approach under a new pope, but it’s entirely possible that they are waiting to weigh in later in the process. Sadly, last year the Vatican chose to support countries like Iran and Syria over moderate and progressive predominantly catholic countries like the Philippines and Mexico, both of whom are working flat out in the negotiations to further the rights of their women citizens.

And over everything looms once again the ‘sovereignty clause’, a paragraph that effectively acts as a wrecking amendment, stating that countries should only have to realise women’s rights if it is ‘consistent with national laws and development priorities’. Essentially, if your laws disadvantage women or you’d rather work on other things, you can ignore the outcomes document entirely. Proposed by the Africa group last year, this paragraph was only shot down in the final hours of last years’ negotiations. It wasn’t a surprise to see it again this year but it’s deeply worrying that there’s still so little recognition that women’s rights are a vital achievement and essential to the wellbeing of all nations.

Image attribution: The CSW58 logo at the head of this piece is from the UN website’s Commission on the Status of Women page.