Two weeks of determined advocacy in New York has established new international standards and strategies to advance gender equality and the empowerment of girls and women.
The advances in the areas of social protection, access to public services, and sustainable infrastructure came despite fierce lobbying by conservative states attacking internationally agreed standards on the rights of girls and women.
The new standards were set in the negotiated outcomes of the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women, the largest annual international gathering of women government leaders.
How design and infrastructure affect girls' lives
The outcomes, known as the Agreed Conclusions, addressed how the design of public services and infrastructure shapes girls’ access to education, their safety, and their participation. They recognise the gender specific barriers that girls face, including negative social norms and stereotypes, and harmful practices such as child early and forced marriage, and female genital mutilation. They also recognise the need to ensure access to safe and affordable drinking water, sanitation and hygiene for all women and girls, in their homes, in schools and in all other public and private spaces.
I felt supported, but I also felt scared.
These achievements were reached after days of exhausting and deeply polarised negotiations. At stake were essential human rights concepts that have already garnered UN consensus, in relation to sexual and reproductive health and rights and services, comprehensive sexuality education, the right to education, multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, and women human rights defenders.
Resisting regressive forces
Delegates worked relentlessly to resist attempts by conservative member states to reframe these concepts as ‘ambiguous’, ‘inappropriate’, and ‘dubious terms’. Right wing groups also used new communications strategies and aggressive tactics to spread misinformation and disrupt side events and negotiations.
Marking a new low for international diplomacy, the CSW’s facilitator, Ms. Koki Muli Grignon (Kenya) was personally bullied and harassed online and through targeted phone messages. “I felt supported, but I also felt scared,” said Muli.
What next? The road to Beijing +25
In the 45 years since the First World Conference on Women in 1975, feminist activists have looked to the UN as a space for deepening and strengthening international human rights standards. And although solidarity ultimately prevailed this year, CSW members were only able to hold the line rather than raise the bar.
The United Nations has now become a contested battled ground for women’s human rights. In this political climate, described by UN Secretary General António Guterres at the CSW as, “deep, pervasive and relentless”, many UN leaders are taking a more pragmatic approach to multilateralism that emphasises implementation over standard setting.
Next year’s CSW will mark 25 years since the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action, a time for reflection on the progress made and what remains to be done. UN Women is also calling on civil society to help lead what is being referred to as the ‘Mexico-France Forum’ in June-July 2020, which will be composed of two, simultaneous gatherings of civil society outside of the intergovernmental process.
Rising to each new challenge
It is remarkable that the UN is looking to civil society organisations to provide this leadership. What does this shift imply for multilateralism and for advancing a feminist transformative agenda? And how will we rise to this challenge?