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The Status of Women: Small wins in a polarised landscape

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A wide view of the town hall meeting with civil society on the occasion of the 68th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW68). Increasingly, CSW negotiations have come to reflect the global debate on gender rights between gender rights activists advocating for progressive gender language and right-wing coalitions pushing for conservative, anti-gender language, the writer says. – Picture: Screenshot / UN Photo / Mark Garten / April 18, 2024

By Phoebe Donnelly and Mahathi Ayyagari

In March, the 68th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW68) convened in New York to negotiate its annual outcome document, the Agreed Conclusions. Increasingly, CSW negotiations have come to reflect the global debate on gender rights between gender rights activists advocating for progressive gender language and right-wing coalitions pushing for conservative, anti-gender language.

Despite polarised views on gender, at this year’s CSW, member states were able to come to a consensus that resulted in some positive language for gender rights activists.

Importantly, the negotiation process at CSW can be particularly challenging for two key reasons. First, the Agreed Conclusions must be adopted by consensus. Agreeing on a final document can be a long process when member states hold opposing viewpoints on gender-progressive language; in past CSWs, member states often only reached an agreement late at night on the final day of negotiations.

Second, the Agreed Conclusions are negotiated from a zero draft. This means that each year’s negotiation starts anew, and any previously agreed-upon language on gender rights is vulnerable to scrutiny and pushback. In this environment, then, the idea of “gains” takes on a different meaning where even just maintaining the status quo on gender language can be viewed as progress for gender rights.

Against this backdrop, members states negotiated CSW68’s Agreed Conclusions around the priority theme “Accelerating the achievement of gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls by addressing poverty and strengthening institutions and financing with a gender perspective”.

Member states shared that on the whole, this year’s CSW was a smooth process, due in part to a balanced zero draft and strong leadership by the Dutch ambassador, who is currently vice-chair designate (Western European and Other States Group) of the Commission.

Despite certain contestations and setbacks in negotiations, including broader debates on gendered issues such as multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination (MIFD), gender-based violence (GBV), and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), there was some constructive language in this year’s Agreed Conclusions that will be useful for gender rights advocates moving forward.

Gender and Poverty, Strengthening Institutions, Financing

This year’s priority theme, though seemingly broad, opened up new areas for progress for women’s rights, shared between the final text in the Agreed Conclusions and numerous feminist civil society presentations. The first theme relates to the feminist principles of care, or the notion that care work is often undervalued, un(der)paid, and delegitimised in economic and development contexts because of its feminised nature.

CSW68 side event discussions, such as those on feminist foreign policy (FFP) and gender-responsive just climate transitions, focused on the notion that the responsibility of caring (for one’s own children and families and for those of others) affects women differently based on class, economic status, and race.

This imbalance is heightened in times of conflict and climate crisis and can further exacerbate both the financial poverty and the “time poverty” experienced by marginalised groups. Civil society advocates therefore called for care to be treated as a valued public good.

The Agreed Conclusions addressed this call to action by not only recognising the “unequal distribution of unpaid care and domestic work between women and men” within the household but also recommending investments in the care economy (paras. v and nn).

The second theme was the need to reform international financial and debt architecture, a topic that also resonated with the highly anticipated Pact for the Future (para. 5.9). As expressed by feminist civil society advocates, there is a need to overhaul the international lending system, which can often reproduce colonial, extractive, and exploitative financial flows from the Global South to the Global North.

The Agreed Conclusions mention, to some degree, the necessity of reconstructing the international financial and debt system to best respond to the gendered impacts of poverty (para. 43). In some ways, the focus on “poverty and strengthening institutions and financing with a gender perspective” may have provided a useful opening for member states from different geographical regions to discuss specific financial reforms that begin to address these structural issues.

However, the Agreed Conclusions were not without gaps and red-lining on the topic of reforming financial and debt architecture, especially when it came to the recommendations of the Agreed Conclusions. Much of the stronger language around international financial architecture and debt reform was softened between the zero draft and the final outcomes.

Where the zero draft acknowledged the “long-standing deficiencies” in the international financial system — presumably, the historical colonial exploitation that still burdens the economies of lower and middle-income countries today — the Agreed Conclusions dispelled some of this responsibility by introducing qualifying phrases which stated that “tighter global financial conditions … could make it more difficult” for low and middle-income countries to pay back debt and “could push more countries towards debt distress” (paras. 21 and 44, emphasis added).

This language shifts the sense of accountability for debt distress and suggests that the need for reform of international financial architecture comes from external factors, rather than the architecture’s own intrinsic and systemic shortcomings.

Gender Backsliding in the Agreed Conclusions

In the past couple of years, right-wing groups have been active during CSW. With increasingly well-co-ordinated anti-gender agendas, the activism of these groups at CSW is reflective of a broader global gender backlash.

One way this gender backlash manifests is when right-wing groups use language around “family” to signify a focus on heterosexual, patriarchal, and traditional understandings of women’s gender roles and kinship structures. This creates an overall concern around the potential backsliding of progressive language on gender and women’s rights in CSW recommendations.

In this year’s Agreed Conclusions, the word “family” appeared twelve times, a slight increase from last year’s session outcomes. In one such instance, this year’s document discusses “women’s and girl’s critical contributions to their families” and “recognises the importance of family-friendly and family-oriented policies” (para. 52).

While it is possible that this type of language appears in certain places as a concession to groups advocating for the “family view of gender”, general language around “family” does not automatically suggest a traditional right-wing agenda or sentiment.

While several references to “family” did appear in this year’s Agreed Conclusions, member states indicated that the final text represented a compromise, as those in favour of language around the “family” wanted more references to family than what appeared in this draft.

Another area of deliberation during CSW was “multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination” (MIFD), which refers to the way that “discrimination occur[s] on the basis of more than one perceived characteristic”, including “age, disability, social and economic status, ethnicity and race”. In this year’s document, the phrase appeared three times, including once in a stand-alone paragraph connecting MIFD with the priority theme (paras. 12, o, and uu).

This does represent a slight improvement from last year’s conclusions, which mentioned MIFD only twice and never in conjunction with the priority theme. This year’s negotiations also included debates around concepts like “intersectionality” and “diversity,” which have become controversial for conservative leaders.

“Gender-responsive” and “gender-based violence” (GBV) were also contentious terminology in this year’s negotiations. One example regarding debates on GBV can be seen in the deletion of the phrase “intimate partner violence” in the transition from the zero draft to the final document.

Member states also debated the reference to “economic violence,” another key dimension of gender-based violence, and eventually eliminated it from the Agreed Conclusions. The deletion or weakening of these phrases will likely carry over and negatively affect their inclusions in upcoming negotiations, including next year’s CSW69 and Beijing+30 (the 30th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action), as well as the ability to more robustly encompass the various aspects and dimensions of gender-based violence in outcome documents.

Progressive Language in the Agreed Conclusions

In a multilateral political landscape, where backsliding on gains in progressive gender language in most UN documents is a key concern, it can be hard to find moments of progress for gender rights advocates. However, in this year’s Agreed Conclusion, certain language was seen as particularly valuable for gender rights advocates.

Arguably the most valuable gain from this year’s CSW68, as it relates to the priority theme, is the inclusion of language recognising the gendered aspects of unpaid care and domestic work.

One common area of debate during CSW negotiations is language around sexual and reproductive health and rights. The specific language around “rights” can be challenging for member states to agree on, but the phrase “reproductive rights” did appear in the outcome document once this year (para. kk).

Also significant is the explicit mention of a woman’s “right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on all matters related to their sexuality”, which carried over from the zero draft to the Agreed Conclusions (paras. dd and kk, emphasis added).

While this language has appeared in past years’ Agreed Conclusions, its inclusion this year is notable given the pushback on language on reproductive rights. In general, language around sexual and reproductive health was mentioned in multiple places throughout the Agreed Conclusions.

Finally, “menstrual health and hygiene” — another area that can lead to opposition from member states with conservative views on gender — was mentioned in a few paragraphs in the Agreed Conclusions (paras. 29 and ii). The language on menstrual health and hygiene in this year’s CSW is valuable for others to be able to “copy and paste this language” (as described by one member state) into future women’s rights policies.

CSW presents a yearly opportunity for UN member states to simultaneously reinforce existing gains and advance the rights of women and girls globally. Yet as this year’s CSW has illustrated, this process does not come without its unique and shifting contentions, including the challenge that more progressive member states grapple with: how do member states maintain agreed-upon language in an environment critical of the very idea of “gender rights” while also advocating for structural and progressive changes?

This debate will continue to be ever-present in future international convenings, and therefore, there is a continued need for strong feminist leadership in multilateral fora.

Phoebe Donnelly is Senior Fellow and Head of Women, Peace and Security (WPS) at the International Peace Institute (IPI). Mahathi Ayyagari works as part of the WPS team at IPI

This article was published on Global Observatory