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The Major Women’s Forum at the UN Needs a Facelift

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Scenes from the UN’s annual women’s conference, March 15, 2024, led by the Commission on the Status of Women. After 80 years of operating, the body cries out for reform, and a process to tackle a makeover has begun. The essay’s authors outline seven game-changing ideas. RYAN BROWN/UN WOMEN 

With almost 80 years of experience in convening and convincing countries worldwide to advance women’s rights, the Commission on the Status of Women desperately needs a makeover. Paula Naváez Ojeda, president of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, and commission chair Abdulaziz bin Mohammed al-Wasel have asked member states for suggestions on the composition and agenda of a proposed task force to reform the CSW, as it’s known.

The request is a once-in-a-century chance to encourage bold ideas to meet this moment. Too many countries — from the United States Supreme Court’s reversals on women’s reproductive rights to threatening laws to protect girls from female genital mutilation in Gambia — are rolling back progress on gender equality and threatening women’s agency and autonomy.

Reform proposals include incorporating a stronger human rights perspective; making violence against women a standing discussion item; holding the annual session in locations other than New York City; and tracking its results though comparable data and indicators through an online database.

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The CSW has a long history of unifying countries around an ambitious agenda for gender equality. In the 1990s, it advanced its mandate to end de facto discrimination against women and address urgent challenges “implementing the principle that men and women shall have equal rights, and to develop proposals to give effect to . . . recommendations.” Its major achievement was unanimous agreement to the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action at the Fourth World Conference on Women. This visionary document created a roadmap to promote and protect the rights of women and girls.

Policy agreements like the Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals enhanced the Beijing agenda. The world saw some progress, such as achieving gender parity in primary schools worldwide. Yet, other progress is stalling. Women’s political participation may have doubled, but it is still very low (at around 27 percent). Violence against women continues to be an extremely serious constraint to their empowerment.

New threats are emerging, from anti-gender backlash to online violence. The Beijing roadmap has become a roundabout, with more countries taking diverse off-ramps with little accountability. Unfortunately, the CSW has limited its annual conference agenda to reviewing just one priority and one theme from the Beijing platform.

The commission appears to be unable to seize new opportunities, such as UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s call for a global plan to tackle violence against women, as proposed in his Our Common Agenda vision. Its value in global affairs will fade without processes to support forward thinking (such as anticipating new threats against and opportunities for women’s rights) or keeping women’s rights relevant to the next generation. For the CSW to engage young people, it needs a dynamic agenda propelled by new generations and their full inclusion in its work.

Guterres has asserted that “there is overwhelming evidence that investing in women is the most effective way to lift communities, companies and countries.” The CSW must show the world — through reliable data, conceptual clarity and evidence-based solutions — how to stem the reversals. It needs to build on the energy of the thousands of activists who attend the CSW in person or virtually at its annual session in March. It remains the only venue where advocates can meet with their national and regional governmental leaders. It is the only annual event where gender equality advocates share good practices, mobilize for regional and international support amid backlash and discrimination and highlight pervasive and emerging abuses of their rights.

There is no shortage of bold, actionable ideas. In January 2024, the NGO Committee for the Commission on the Status of Women received 600 responses to a survey on how to improve the CSW. Here are seven possible game-changers:

Galvanize unswerving action to end the pandemic of violence against women and girls (EVAW-G): Make this a standing CSW agenda item. Establish a global emergency action plan to combat and prevent gender-based violence. Support the creation of an optional protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) and implement it with the Platform of Independent Expert Mechanisms on Discrimination and Violence against Women (EDVAW Platform).

• Use the full normative authority of the UN to pinpoint the worst abuses of women’s rights and the solutions to end them. The CSW should be the place where the EDVAW platform, the CEDAW Committee, relevant special rapporteurs, regional independent experts and other treaty bodies report on their evidence of gender discrimination.

• Upgrade the CSW communications process to enable women and girls to to raise attention to abuse they are facing through a rapid, integrated response mechanism.

• Generate a short, strategic and targeted set of trackable results from the annual CSW session to promote proven practices for advancing gender equality and justice. A yearly CSW report card could assess the relevance and follow-ups from each CSW conference.

• UN Women and the UN system should engage partners worldwide year-round to build a CSW agenda from the ground up and to ensure follow up. Shorten the CSW to five days from 10. Hold CSW meetings in different countries to enhance ownership and increase local participation.

• Amplify potentially promising practices and lessons learned from experience on the ground. The CSW needs to use technology and the global network of UN agencies to illustrate what gender equality looks like everywhere.

• Nurture strategic alliances. Alliances between civil society organizations and national ministries of gender equality are pivotal. These could elevate the status of women’s ministries and feminist alliances while improving accountability.

The Economic and Social Council, CSW and UN Women have essential roles to play in supporting the work of the new task force on the commission’s revitalization. A breakthrough is possible if the task force includes women and men who have been working on the frontlines of fighting for gender equality and who demonstrate the courage and creativity that compels the ambitions of women’s human rights defenders worldwide.

 

Anne Marie Goetz is a clinical professor at NYU and former UN official. Dubravka Simonovic is a former Chairperson, CSW,  UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women and CEDAW Chairperson. Joanne Sandler is a Senior Associate, Gender at Work and former UN official.

 


This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article..  What are your thoughts?

Clinical Professor at 

Anne Marie Goetz is a clinical professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs in the School of Professional Studies. She was previously director of the Peace and Security section of UN Women. She is the author of seven books on gender, politics and policy in developing countries.

 

Clinical Professor at 

Dubravka Simonovic is a former chair of the CSW, UN special rapporteur on violence against women and CEDAW chair.

Joanne Sandler
Senior Associate at 

Joanne Sandler is a senior associate at Gender at Work and a former UN official.

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The Major Women’s Forum at the UN Needs a Facelift
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Laura Rojo MacLeod
1 day ago

Agreed this is an intergovernmental system where CSW is inserted. Therefore, 1) a wider and wise approach is urgently needed. Failing to address the gender equity issue under all bodies and across all thematic areas (S.Hordosch) will keep us in the unending vicious circle. Furthermore, 2) I see the most urgent issue behind it all is the economical bias which prevents a massive flow of resources in the most needed areas. I’d add this money influx not only should provide jobs for women and men, but also local development where communities can thrive helping each other. There are many stories and solutions to implement already. The time for solutions is now, no more stories. Last but not at all least, 3) the environmental issue must be considered first in the agenda by decision makers at all levels. Without the natural world we can’t survive and every plan will turn into a disaster. We are in a climate emergency, this is ecocide. CSW must support the ethical international and domestic ecocide law now.
My environmental dream since the 80s, still flies strong: global environmental ethics in decision makers.

Sylvia Hordosch
Sylvia Hordosch
2 days ago

Alas, a truly misleading title. CSW is not a UN Women forum, it is an intergovernmental body, and the strongest functional commission of ECOSOC. UN Women is the secretariat of CSW and provides excellent support to CSW. It is a pity that the authors of this article do not explain what is wrong with CSW as such, and they seem to narrow the space for gender equality advocates by limiting the discussion to CSW. There is more to the intergovernmental system than CSW. Gender equality issues need to be addressed in all bodies across all thematic areas. The real challenge has been – and remains – the status of national implementation of global gender equality norms and standards. Unfortunately, this is not addressed.

PassBlue
Admin
PassBlue
1 day ago

Thanks for your comment. The headline is not referring to UN Women, the agency, but the UN’s CSW forum. We can adjust it. — Editors

Dr Bilali Camara
Dr Bilali Camara
3 days ago

Indeed as the CSW and CEDAW have become a political football between Republicans and Democrats in the USA, the political right and left in Europe and rejecting them a mean for politicians to please uneducated Imams in West-Africa, there is a long way to go. The Global South has to understand that respecting a woman and a girl is not a Western value but an African value and gender equality is not a Western value but a human value as no strong family is built in Africa without the key role of a woman!

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