The world needs more women leaders and men standing up for gender equality, UN Chief Antonio Guterras re-iterated at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) that held its 61st annual session in New York from 13-24 March, 2017. He asserted the need to cultivate and strengthen women’s leadership, and breaking of structural barriers urging all men to stand up for women’s empowerment.
This year’s focus theme was “Women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work”, coming at a crucial time when all across the world action on legal and normative frameworks towards full and decent employment for all women, for equal pay for equal work etc. leaves much to be desired. Informality of work and mobility of women workers are urgent concerns; ushering digital and technological changes for women’s empowerment is imperative and the call for women’s leadership role at all levels and strengthening women’s collective voices is compelling.
The CSW is a UN conference established by a charter in 1946. It holds one of its largest and most important annual conferences every March in New York. There, sessions take stock of the progress in women’s equality on an international scale, documenting women’s realities, setting “gold standards” and formulating policies towards the advancement of women. Member states agree on further actions to accelerate progress and promote women’s rights in political, economic and social fields. Besides the official negotiation process, there is a large participation of civil society actors for whom the agreed conclusions and the review process are important as they can be used to hold national governments and international institutions accountable.
The event is regularly attended by global leaders, civil society, private sector actors, multilaterals and activists from around the world. This year, a team from HBF India had for the first time the opportunity to attend personally amongst several thousand attendees of the CSW – gender advocates, women and men, who shared stories of their work and struggles at the UN headquarters and various NGO venues. Beyond numerous government representatives, about 3,900 civil society people attended the CSW this year, where besides the official proceedings more than 600 side events took place.
The general atmosphere around the CSW at its onset was somewhat marred by the U.S. administration’s travel ban limiting feminists and groups from some Muslim-majority countries in attending the events. Thus doubts emerged as to the very legitimacy of the venue. Beyond the official travel ban, we were told that a number of women leaders from the Global South were unable to attend due to visa related issues. A campaign by a coalition of women’s organizations launched a “No Borders on Gender Justice” campaign at CSW, by visibly placing a chair with a note “Why is This Chair Empty?” during CSW events in front of the room.
The larger civil society gathers outside the formal annual meeting process within the UN headquarters, and much action takes place, not just through people meeting but using online channels or through media reporting. The CSW is not just an inter-governmental process about official agreements but a vibrant and dynamic platform, complex and un-contained. It is one of the few forums where we witness blurring of lines and the easy mingling of the official and the ‘outsiders’, though senior feminists recall times when CSW was strongly collaborative and the women NGO community would be represented in official delegations.
The range of topics at the side-events was all encompassing and a range of civil society actors participated. Armed with a booklet-size ‘schedule of side-events’ printout from the UN CSW website, one has the chance to select from a large range of topics and varied levels of discussion. Meetings we attended ranged from powerful narratives, full of experience and content to reports about organizations working to combat economic justice and gender inequality; while others challenged macro-economic processes and how they can be directed to promote gender justice and an economy that works for all.
CSW looking at BRICS
The hbs Delhi office along with the Programme for Women’s Economics Social and Cultural Rights (PWESCR) and their partners held a side-event on March 16th titled “Emerging Economies and Women’s Economic Empowerment: Feminist Analysis from BRICS”, presenting a Southern feminist framework for economic empowerment of women and looking at some of the ideas on this which are emerging out of BRICS.
BRICS as an emerging country grouping is significant in terms of population, trade, investment and political clout. Each country has a strong history of feminist movements. Despite this, BRICS up to now has little focus on gender and women within its policies or summit agenda. BRICS’ New Development Bank – its development finance institution which, to some, forms an alternative to the World Bank – has started to implement projects. But it is unclear whether any gender analysis of implications has been taken into account. At the CSW side event, panelists from Brazil, Russia, India, China and Turkey discussed BRICS as an emerging protagonist in the global system and in development cooperation; they expressed a sense of urgency towards strengthening solidarities amongst women’s movements in BRICS countries, in order to build tools for advocacy towards addressing gender and women’s rights in BRICS policies and developmental models.
BRICS is a largely South-based multilateral platform, and as such it is seen by many to function as a challenge to the Northern-dominated world order based on the Washington-based global financial institutions. But how far does BRICS really constitute an alternative? At the meeting, the inequality produced by economic growth and the concept of economic justice were highlighted, and the need to strengthen those at the lower end of the social ladder, including especially women engaged in care work. Participants agreed that there is need for greater critical engagement with the question of whether and how South-South, intra-BRICS and BRICS-Global South cooperation differs qualitatively from standard North-South cooperation. As a follow-up on this meeting, the BRICS Feminist Watch developed a “Women’s Economic Empowerment Framework” towards BRICS. In it, an important focus was on recognition, redistribution and reduction of women’s unpaid work in the care economy and the productive economy:
Recognize women as a worker and unpaid work as work
- Redefine the whole concept of work to include all activities – economic, social, human and environment development.
- Recognise care as a public good and basic right.
- Ensure nine months of wage-adjusted leave for pregnant women so that they can breastfeed their baby for six months without loss of income
Redistribution of unpaid care work should be in three ways:
- Redistribution from women to men.
- Redistribution from households to the state but not necessarily to the market:
- Redistribution of time and resources, particularly to the poor households.
- To reduce women’s time burden, and drudgery provide accessible basic services such as water, sanitation (toilets), education, health, fodder, energy, fuel and housing.
- Provide women-sensitive infrastructure for the care economy (child care/crèche, and adult care).
- Government should conduct time use survey periodically to review paid and unpaid work done by women.
Source: Women’s Economic Empowerment Framework of the BRICS feminist Group, as distributed after the CSW
Gender and Energy at CSW
Several hbf international offices and their partners were involved in various other side events. A particular focus was provided on energy and climate policy by the Washington office. A session on “Empowering Energy” on 17th March presented inspiring stories of gender-just energy co-operatives which are becoming important players in the fight for climate action and women’s economic empowerment. A local activist reported how, through sustainable products and businesses which reduce green house gas emissions, such as solar water heaters and fuel-efficient stoves, women energy co-operatives in Georgia are making gender-sensitive choices, playing a leadership role in rural energy transition. In Kyrgyzstan, despite the harsh rural living conditions women are at the forefront of doing daily chores through sustainable energy and sanitation practices using alternative, ecologically friendly technologies like energy effective stoves, food driers, solar water heaters and sanitation technologies. Ongoing advocacy efforts by feminists at the macro-level are beginning to channelize public financing like the Green Climate Fund (GCF) in favour of gender-sensitive renewable energy efforts. This advocacy requires a focus of GCF funding for MSME where financial intermediaries (domestic public/commercial banks) need to have a commitment in passing the subsidy to women entrepreneurs as end consumers.
Furthermore, hbs Washington organized an event on “Sustainable Development and Climate Finance in Support of Gender Equality” held on March 20th. The shortfall in financing sustainable development goals is enormous in itself and within this the need to address gender equality and women’s empowerment is in an even sorrier state. The panelists made an urgent call to sharpen the focus of development finance, especially new funds on gender equality. There is much to be done to increase women’s and women’s groups’ access to finance, within ODA and beyond.
Overall, the mood at CSW was positive. This time in New York, it was a first for a UN Secretary-General to hold town hall civil society meeting at a CSW session, on March 17th, where commentators questioned the slow progress and sharp inequality that women face at workplaces and the gender pay gap worldwide. Others questioned his plans to deal with institutional gender issues at the UN, and deplored the very small budget of UN Women, compared to that of other UN bodies.
In the final Agreed Conclusions of the CSW, adopted on Friday 24th March, there are the some big ‘wins’ in it for gender advocates especially as it flags Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) as being critical to women’s economic rights. The ‘reproductive’ and ‘sexual’ aspect of SRHR got through despite some opposition by certain countries and conservative sections. Sexual education was left out and so was any reference to women’s right to safe and lawful abortion.
The Commission recognized that women do much of the unpaid work within the household and provided a design for governments to recognize, reduce and re-distribute women’s unpaid work through social protection, public service, child and care services. In her address, UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka brought specific attention to this issues citing that that up to 90% of women workers in some countries are informally employed. She mentioned that 190 million women in the informal sector are in India alone.
Another important issue in the Agreed Conclusions is the emphasis on the rights of migrant workers and the critical role that women play in mitigating the effects of climate change.
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and mathematics) and ICT sectors are important emerging areas and the Conclusions urge Governments to provide women education and work in these fields, along with ending occupational segregation. In the emerging digital economy, women are at the risk of losing hard won labour rights. There is a need to move beyond the rhetoric of inclusion and recognise that women need an equal share in the gains in the digital economy, with digital capabilities – especially higher order ICT skill sets – so that they can find employment in the restructured digital economy, and leverage its opportunities for entrepreneurship.
The conclusions furthermore direct governments to end violence and harassment against women within the ambit of their work while enforcing policies, laws and measures to support victims and survivors of violence.
On one of the contentious issues, the outcome document language was positive as there is recognition of diverse family structures implying a more inclusive, non-binary perspective towards diverse forms of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI).
Another sticky issue is of the ‘sovereignty clause’ that certain countries have put into the text implying that national realities and policy space take precedence in the implementation of the gender agenda vis a vis SDGs.
There is still much work to do by the women’s movement to push the agenda at the CSWs, but it is with a positive outlook that the world welcomes the Agreed Conclusions as this is eminently incremental progress towards achieving women’s rights and empowerment worldwide and in the march towards the 2030 agenda.
On a personal level, the experience at the CSW was empowering, providing an opportunity to link and reach out to activists from across the globe who contributed to the collective energy of this rather special international event. It is about the collective power and the ‘show’ to push the women’s agenda. Moreover, international spaces like these are even more needed as civil society spaces are under attack in many parts of the world and the UN and other agencies need to be strengthened towards playing a stronger role. The CSW remains very important in this regard.