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CSW Hangover, or Recovery from the Commission on the Status of Women

What is the CSW, anyway?!

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), established in 1946, is the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to equality and empowerment for women. The CSW promotes women’s rights, documents women’s lived realities worldwide, and shapes global standards on gender equality and women’s empowerment. In addition, the CSW monitors and reviews progress towards the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and mainstreams gender issues across the UN system, including in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The CSW meets for two weeks in March every year at UN headquarters to advance their work programs, and focus on an annual priority theme. For 2019, the theme was social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality. Relevant, important, critical, timely stuff.

So, what’s the problem?

After 25 years of working on gender equality, I attended my very first CSW! There’s an interesting distinction between the CSW-regulars and us field types. As a first-timer, I found myself somewhat mystified by the process, observing the insiders from the sidelines, literally.

Roughly, CSW events are divided into two substantially unequal chunks – the “high level” event and the “side events”. A friend compared this to the division between the adults and kids tables for Thanksgiving dinner!

The side events are, by definition, organized “outside the formal program” of CSW. And yet, according to the official descriptions, they provide “an excellent opportunity for Member States, UN entities and NGOs to discuss themes of the Commission and other critical gender equality issues”.

Wait – “side” events?!

Yup – words matter. How can we change the dominate power paradigm when we’re still divided based on who’s in, and who’s on the side? And at the grown-ups table, the real show continues, where big-people decisions are made, sometimes resulting in the lowest common denominator. We all should be at the table, not just on the menu.

Civil society not only helped shape our global policy framework on women’s empowerment and gender equality, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, but these organizations also can – must! – hold leaders accountable for their commitments to advance women’s empowerment and equality. And yet, how can they be expected to do so when most do not participate in the main event, but are relegated to side events, to remain eternally outside the main show? It’s worth asking if decisions made behind closed doors actually reflect the priorities of grassroots women’s groups…

And speaking of doors, just entering UN land is complicated enough, with passes and scans and IDs and searches and questions. The process itself is a reflection of the power divide.

In the side events where I spoke, “high level” delegates and member states were in attendance only to hear themselves speak, and then swiftly exit the room before anyone else made a presentation. Civil society speaks last.

Meaning, the meaningful discussions that should be attended by all – at least by those who are part of the official program – were in fact just rooms of people who usually talk to each other. And the much-needed cross-pollinization, and the bridging of the great us-them divide, did not materialize.

What good stuff happened at CSW?

Of course there was loads of that… we’re talking about an event of 5000+ people from civil society and nearly 2000 official government delegates. This is the UN’s largest gathering on women’s rights. And, we need it now more than ever. Next year, in 2020, we will mark the 25th anniversary of  the Beijing Platform, our roadmap for rights. We will likely find ourselves in 2020 repeating the same mantras we did in 1995. Our feminist agenda is far from fulfilled.

That’s not to say it’s not a success – far from it! We have witnessed hard-won rights slip through our fingers in recent years. Patriarchy has proven to be a relentless and tenacious bastard – and we now must “push back against the push-backs”, as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said at the opening of CSW. The event resulted in some critical conclusions in the form of a roadmap to safeguard and improve social protection, public services and sustainable infrastructure for women and girls. Undoubtedly important stuff.

But fundamental disparities remain. And we’re only able to effectively push back if we’re in it together, pushing in the same direction. And the whole thing could use a feminist reframe. I’d hate for us to lose our revolutionary spirit in watered-down agreements that only exist on paper.

Rehmah Kasule of Uganda put it well:

“I was told to shut up, but I didn’t. There are millions of women and girls who are never heard or engaged in decision-making. Sometimes people see your power and don’t want you to have it.”

And my favorite takeaway from CSW – an exchange with UN security as I was going through the rigorous process of entering the building…

UN security: What does your shirt say? Me: Feminist. Again, me: Are you asking because it is in Arabic? UN security: We want to know in case people don’t like it. Me: Why would they not like it? UN security: We don’t allow protests in this building. Me: This isn’t a protest. It’s a principle.

#GenderEquality #CSW #UN #CSW2019 #Feminism #WomensRights #CSW63

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