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Equality between women and men is not a ‘women’s issue’

As the 54th UN Commission on the Status of Women meets to review action on the promises made in Beijing’95, will the creation of a new women’s agency at the UN finally give the CSW the teeth it needs to advance women’s human rights?

Women UN limited logo and imageFifteen years ago 30,000 women gathered in Huairou, Beijing, and over two weeks held 3,500 workshops and worked with UN member states to produce a vision of global social transformation - the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA).

It is an extraordinary document that came out of what one member of the UK delegation called the ‘mud, madness and magnificence’ of Huairou.  Building on the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna 1993 when women and girls were first declared to have human rights, the BPfA declares: 

“The advancement of women and the achievement of equality between women and men are a matter of human rights and a condition for social justice and should not be seen in isolation as a women's issue. They are the only way to build a sustainable, just and developed society. Empowerment of women and equality between women and men are prerequisites for achieving political, social, economic, cultural and environmental security among all peoples.” 

As the UN CSW meets to review the progress and new challenges of implementing the promises for ‘Equality, Development and Peace’made at the BpfA, it does so in an environment much changed from 1995. The overarching challenges of neoliberal globalisation, growing militarism and rising fundamentalisms have created an environment increasingly hostile to the promotion of women’s human rights, and one in which politics and policies now threaten past gains - particularly in the area of our sexual health and reproductive rights.

The BPfA was a call for action that would lead to “the empowerment of all women”. In the 1980’s ‘empowerment’ was defined by feminists as a political idea that challenged patriarchy, it was socio-economic process and had at its core shifts in social power. By Beijing 1995 it had become a buzzword, the e-word; but as Srilatha Batliwala writes in  Putting power back into empowerment since then women’s empowerment has been co-opted and distorted by various political agendas anxious to limit its transformatory potential, robbing it of both its original meaning and strategic value. 

As one strategy for implementing the BPfA, ‘mainstreaming’ became fashionable, but it produced unforeseen and negative consequences. Women’s organisations that advocated gender mainstreaming in budgets and finance did so in the hope that it would make aid more effective in addressing women’s inequality and poverty. But overnight governments around the world ticked the ‘mainstreaming gender’ box and funding was diverted away from grassroots women’s organisations into government ministries, where it remained. In the work on development aid for women’s rights, gender equality as ‘smart economics’ moved centre stage, and as Rosalind Eyben writes women again found themselves ‘working for development’.

The cuts in funding have led to an increased fragmentation of organisations working for women’s human rights as they compete for the dwindling resources, and have led to pressure to endlessly claim difference so that, as Zoya Hussan says,  it can be used as a strategy for inclusion. These trends have allowed policy makers and politicians to continue to treat as separate issues concerns which are common to all women. A very basic and effective kind of divide and rule…

The UN CSW was established as a result of pioneering work by the international feminist movement to be a vehicle for women’s human rights, but as Pinar Illkaracan describes in her article Do women and girls have human rights?  it functions instead as a vehicle for global political interests. The subjects of HIV/Aids and violence against women have increasingly become tokens of global politics and traded by the world's governments on the international stage. But nowhere is this more clearly illustrated today than in the arena of our sexual and reproductive rights (there are three workshops addressing this issue on the first day of the CSW alone). The expansion of the EU now means that it no longer speaks with one voice on issues of sexual health and reproductive rights, and today’s political power blocs with the rise of the BRIC countries are very different from those in 1995.

Baroness Joyce Gould, chair of the UK National Women’s Commission was one of the women who argued all night in Beijing for the inclusion of what became paragraph 96 in the Beijing Platform for Action

"The human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. Equal relationships between women and men in matters of sexual relations and reproduction, including full respect for the integrity of the person, require mutual respect, consent and shared responsibility for sexual behaviour and its consequences."

At a recent meeting of the Women’s National Commission in London, attended by NGO representatives  who will be at the CSW next week, Gould asked whether with the increased excitement that this year’s review CSW seems to be generating, people were in favour of a 5th World Conference on Women? A clear majority said ‘No’.  Why: because as Gould said “ it would be a disaster, my instinct from having seen so much of what is happening across the world is that we would go enormously backward – especially on the issue of our sexual health and reproductive rights”.

So where does hope lie? There is a real sense of hope around the decision to reform the architecture of the UN itself. After five years of advocacy by the GEAR campaign for a powerful women’s agency headed by an Under Secretary General, the UN General Assembly voted last September to combine the four separate UN women’s units (Unifem, INSTRAW, DAW and OSAGI) into one powerful UN Agency led by an Under Secretary General. The news was widely welcomed, but as Charlotte Bunch argues in her article  A powerful women’s agency: will the UN deliver?  in order for the new agency to have genuine power, real leadership, substantial funding, and formal civil society involvement are essential. It has to be operational, not just advisory. The Under Secretary General’s 'Comprehensive Proposal for the Composite Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women’ published last month, was seen as a step back by some, and the battle is now on for the agency to have real and sustainable funding and formal civil society involvement at both national and international level. 

Will the creation of a single women’s agency at the UN help end the  trade-offs on global political issues and conflicts, help women to ‘put the power back into empowerment’ and take back the CSW as the vehicle for the advancement of women’s rights that it was designed to be ? Will it empower women in the true sense of being able to produce real advances for women and girls?  Or will we continue to rely on the power of shared information, evidence given, new strategies discussed and the collective vision of a world based on equality, peace and justice that is articulated every year at the CSW by the thousands of women - and the few men -  who raise funds year in year out to make the journey to New York, rising to the challenges of working for women’s human rights in these hostile times.

About the author

Jane Gabriel founded and edited the website openDemocracy 50.50 in 2006, publishing critical perspectives on social justice, gender and pluralism. The site was run as a feminist editorial collective until 2016 when Jane retired as editor.

Prior to joining openDemocracy, Jane produced and directed more than 30 documentaries for Channel 4 Television and the BBC international current affairs series Correspondent, winning the Royal Television Society and One World Media awards for documentaries filmed in Greece and India. In 1980’s she was a member of the UK's first all-women television production company, Broadside. In the 1970's she worked at Granada TV in the UK, and at Pacifica radio KPFA in the US. She is a qualified advocate for children in care, and a Trustee of the IF Project.


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