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Time for a Fifth World Conference on Women?

Not holding a fifth UN world conference in 2015 has left a vacuum, a dangerous thing when patriarchal ethno-nationalists are colonizing public space. It is time to insist that international human rights institutions deliver for women.

Participants in the International Women's Day March in Los Angeles, California on March 5, 2017. Credit: Ronen Tivony/PA Images

The call to topple patriarchy might once have been seen as a fringe feminist fantasy but it has increasingly gained mainstream cachet.  At the UN, the Executive Director of UN Women is calling for it. Emmy-award winning producer of Trans/Parent, Jill Soloway is calling for it. Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan has called out patriarchy more than once and is credited with “kicking patriarchy in the gut” in his film Dangal. The Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau has called for all men to be feminists

How do we square the amplification of these calls with the resurgence of strongmen (and a growing number of strongwomen), with elections giving us ethnic nationalists and patriarchs like Trump, Erdogan, Duterte, and many others?  Insecure, bullying autocrats are nothing new, but what is new is their growing appeal in democracies.  Also new is their conversion of traditional social conservatism into a much coarser unfiltered misogyny. Is this patriarchy’s last gasp? Or is it now dealing out an increasingly vicious and vindictive comeuppance?

It is stating the obvious, we know, to point out that feminist anti-patriarchal strategies need a massive global re-think. The strategies of the 70s, 80s and 90s have helped us make great strides, but the terrain has changed. Which is why we are re-visiting – and re-echoing – our call in January 2015 for a United Nations Fifth World Conference on Women. If women’s rights had no country – a dwindling number of champions and defenders in international negotiations – when we wrote two years ago, things have deteriorated with recent political developments, including the catastrophic outcome of the US presidential election.  Stalwart national defenders of women’s rights are toppling, and conservative populist nationalists now unashamedly and explicitly make restrictions of women’s social, economic and sexual freedoms foundational to their political projects.  Plans for a fifth world conference on women were shelved a few years ago for fear that these forces would unravel established women’s rights agreements.

Retreat is not an option. Protections for human rights and human security are eroding fast. The institutions that are supposed to uphold them – the courts, the media, our political leaders and parties, trade unions, education, religious, and health care institutions, the United Nations itself – are being corporatized, de-funded, compromised and undermined.  But if it seemed such a major risk to hold a fifth Women’s World Conference in 2015, surely even to bring up the topic now is nothing short of reckless.

Or is it?  Arguably it is much more dangerous not to.  Not holding a global summit on accelerating the drive towards gender equality is a signal that we have lost faith that the institutions built to advance human rights will deliver for women

Feminist retreats from institutions exacerbates default patriarchy

The real victory of nakedly patriarchal, racist, authoritarian leaders is that they systematically undermine faith in the institutions that are supposed to advance and protect our interests, and in so doing, erode interest in participating in institutions that have the potential to check authoritarian power.

As more and more opportunistic ethno-nationalists come to power – and as they usher in reforms that close political space for opposition and reasoned, well-informed public debate – the decisions we make about our interactions and negotiations with mainstream institutions become more and more fraught.  For most of the world, public institutions and ideological frameworks have been oriented to debates on the proper roles of states versus markets.  Choices about how to engage have often featured ‘right’ versus ‘left’ perspectives.  These perspectives have been grounded in understandings of public life dating from the industrial revolution and are less and less meaningful in contemporary politics.  Feminist economists like Diane Elson, Gita Sen, Lourdes Beneria, Naila Kabeer, have long pointed out that these perspectives are ignorant of the deep – but invisible and disparaged – economy of care in which women are the unrewarded workhorses.  Feminist environmentalists like Wangari Maathai and Donna Haraway have shown how our economies are parasitical on the natural world – whose value is similarly unrecognized. 

Supporters of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrates his victory in the presidential election vote, August 2014. Credit: Depo Photos / PA Images

The capacities of both the care and natural worlds endlessly to provide without compensation or renewal are finally snapping, and these convulsions have in part triggered the current neo-nationalist backlash.  Women’s flight from marriage and motherhood in some contexts (like Japan, Italy) are rational responses to a labor market that does not reward care.  Elsewhere the fact that women have been more willing than men to tolerate the degraded working conditions of globalized capital has altered power relations in families, triggering men’s deep insecurities, expressed in the form of elevated violence against women, or votes for despots who promise a return to male privilege.  Old political distinctions between left and right have become almost meaningless.  What matters now is open versus closed, inclusive versus isolationist, and institutions for tolerant societies versus approaches to social organization that rely on atavistic appeals to ethnic and male supremacy.

As institutions have struggled to keep up with these changes, they have become less meaningful, and less attractive spaces for social change projects, triggering in some cases an exodus by liberals.  As feminists who have been part of that exodus – and acknowledging the privileges that enabled us to enter and exit formal institutions, a privilege that many women and marginalized communities do not have – we must weigh our principles against the costs of losing power in institutions. It is not as if there is plenty of institutional space for feminists – far from it. Governments, political parties, international organizations, churches, corporate boards remain hostile to leadership by women and especially feminists. Many feminists find the default patriarchy of these institutions corrupting, which is why so many feminists seek alternative spaces. 

We are not making a ‘lean in’ argument. But are we ceding political space when we disdain running for political office or refrain from supporting potential candidates because politics can corrupt and is increasingly dangerous? Are we enabling rapacious capitalism when we refuse to sit at tables with potential allies in the private sector or military because they are clubbed as irredeemable members of the military-industrial complex?  Do we create self-inflicted crevasses in our movements when we condemn feminists who have chosen to work inside of institutions as sell-outs, contributing to their isolation?  Some of us give up on joining trade unions to reform them from the inside, or turn off the mainstream media because it only represents corporate interests. But far from dying away because of our disengagement, these institutions revert to patriarchal management.   We are doing exactly what toxic masculinity wants: handing over large swathes of public space to a resurgent, revived patriarchal command.

And, so it goes with the United Nations.  Not holding a fifth world conference has left a vacuum, a dangerous thing when empowered social conservatives are colonizing public space. 

Flirting with a Counter-factual:  What if…

We can read the decision not to hold a fifth Women’s World Conference in 2015 as an example of ceding institutional space, giving ground.  It was a significant thing NOT to do.  Other major global projects continue to hold massive summits – notably the meetings addressing climate change, indigenous people’s rights, HIV/AIDs, the Sustainable Development Goals, the Arms Trade Treaty. Addressing global problems requires global negotiation and coordination.   None of these agendas has retreated from global negotiation processes.  Just the women’s rights agenda.

The decision not to hold a fifth Women’s World Conference was actually taken several years before 2015 when there were worrying signs.  Already the annual meetings of the Commission on the Status of Women registered increasing difficulty in reaching consensus because of conservative opposition.  In 2012 a coalition of member states of the United Nations began to negotiate together to attack existing women’s rights agreements and prohibit any further advances – for instance on issues of sexual orientation, or adolescent sex education, or recognition of the wide variety of families that do not conform to the heterosexual nuclear model.

It is hard not to ask: what if.  What if, in 2012, plans had been set for a Women’s World Conference?  What if it had taken place in 2015, and what if it had been held in Turkey, one of the first countries to offer to host it? 

Counterfactuals are hollow, they are ‘I told you so’ taunts without the satisfaction of seeing events confirm warnings.  But let’s indulge in this for just a moment, and ask how a conference in 2015 might have changed history.  A women’s conference would certainly have mobilized global opposition to women’s rights – the people that feel that secularism has gone too far, that women’s rights are the markers of decadence, that ‘gender’ threatens the divinely-ordained binary of man/woman, that social disintegration is upon us.  Conservative opposition has been present at all the four women’s conferences so far and would certainly have been stronger and better organized than ever before.   

But so too would the world’s feminist voices.  Indeed, by 2015, feminist movements the world over were energized and emboldened by international successes, such as the recognition of rape as a punishable, systematic tactic of war or sustained infusion of gender equality across the globally-approved  2015 Sustainable Development Goals framework.  On top of this, a women’s conference could have provided a feminist destination for a new generation of young people. Their voices could have risen to a global roar for intersectional equality and their activism – as part of a preparatory process of national, regional and global consultations – could have laid the ground for new solutions to global threats, and might have amplified their voices in their own countries, to diminish the appeal of national reactionary forces.

Those who are most marginalized and threatened – refugees and minorities fleeing untenable conditions of war or ethnic/racial/religious persecution, civil society groups whose actions are increasingly under scrutiny, women’s human rights defenders who live under the constant threat of violence, girls vulnerable to harmful traditional practices or school-related gender-based violence – would have had a global platform to make their experiences heard by far larger numbers of people and power holders than in any past women’s conference. Alliances between women’s rights networks across countries in conflict and in disintegrating democracies would have been strengthened.  Had the conference been held in Istanbul, it might have provided a platform for women of Arab and Muslim societies to offer counter-narratives to authoritarian governments, the political projects of religious extremists, and Islamophobes. The asymmetries and divisions between women – whether on the basis of race, class, sexual preference, geographic location and other unacknowledged privileges – could have received much greater scrutiny.  We might have come up with new ways to address these, while recognizing that the political and environmental emergencies we face require united action.  

We cannot say that a Fifth World Conference on Women would have prevented the election of leaders like Trump or Duterte.  We do, however, posit that the collective strength and engagement that is catalyzed by these global processes have many unexpected consequences. Mobilization and transformation are connected.

Don’t sit around waiting for the time and the politics to be just right

The tens of millions of people around the world, of all genders, ages and nationalities, who marched on January 21st, showed two things.  First: ordinary people the world over are horrified about atavistic ethno-nationalists and their calls for a closing of minds and a destruction of the institutions that promote tolerance and justice.  Second: feminist movements are at the forefront of this resistance, and gender equality is a foundational principle of building open societies. The women taxi cab drivers in India, the all-women peace negotiating team from Sweden, the women at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement, the men who stand up to end violence against women in more and more countries and the transwomen who speak about the toxicity of male privilege are proof that feminists have the numbers, the conviction, and are inflicting body blows to patriarchy.

Black Lives Matter protest on July 10, 2016 in New York. Credit: PA Images / Monica Jorge

It is not clear that another women’s world conference – for instance in 2020 – is necessarily the best way to channel this energy. But it is worth debating whether it would help to build intersectional feminist strategies to rebuild inclusive democracies. 

To be effective, another world conference cannot take the form of any of its predecessors.  It cannot be about governments negotiating women’s rights, or using them as proxies and bargaining chips for other battles.  We need a process unlike any other that the UN has hosted to date. We could build on the Paris/Accra ‘aid effectiveness’ process whose purpose is to mobilize resources to deliver results.

As the UN Commission on the Status of Women convenes from March 13 to 24 in New York – and thousands of women’s rights movements and organizations gather – we propose that there be serious debate about the merits and possible approaches to holding a world conference in 2020. Maybe it is a process that does not result in a ‘global’ gathering, but rather has simultaneous regional and/or national gatherings. Maybe it is a process that does not have a final governmental declaration of future goals, but rather commits to institutional reforms and a new accountability agenda. It must be a process that includes leadership by people under 35 and avoids the endless negotiations and bartering that waters down other UN processes.

We would hope for, at least, a commitment by the CSW, the UN Secretary-General, and UN Women to launch a consultative process and figure out what kind of world conference could make a significant difference.  It should be a process that amplifies the voices and aspirations of young people all over the planet, that creates space and opportunities for the voices of those who are most marginalized to create new approaches to social and economic organization.  It cannot be a process constrained by anxious readings of the tea leaves of political risk.  Times are tough, they could get worse, and that is precisely why women’s rights can’t wait in the hope that the political environment will improve.  From Seneca Falls in 1848, to The Hague International Congress of Women in 1915, to the 2003 Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, women don’t wait for the time to be right.  We make it right.

About the authors

Anne Marie Goetz is a Clinical Professor at the Center for Global Affairs, New York University. She was formerly Chief Advisor on Peace and Security at UN Women. Follow her on twitter @amgoetz and @nyucga

Joanne Sandler is an independent consultant focusing on women’s human rights and a Senior Associate of Gender@Work, an international collaborative that strengthens organizations to build cultures of equality and social justice. Between 2001 and 2010, Joanne was Deputy Executive Director of Programmes at the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). Follow her on twitter @JoanneSandler.


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