CSW: The UN is nothing without being global

Agendas driven by political alignments, issues of sovereignty, the secular versus the non-secular, and donor versus recipient countries, continue to inform the debate at the CSW. Ten years ago, no agreement was reached on how to prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls. What are the prospects for agreement this time ? 

Annette Lawson
13 March 2013

In the closing days of the CSW, the temperature is hot in the conference and negotiation rooms as governments seeks to ravel and unravel the wording of what should become the Agreed Conclusions - that is, the outcome of the two weeks of this extremely serious Commission.

This meeting seeks to make sense of the pandemic of violence against women and girls that has swept the world.  It is a War on Women that has to stop. No-one denies the appalling figures which show the abuse of women and girls to be extraordinarily common, most of it happening behind closed doors in what should be the safe spaces of families.  No-one thinks rape, whether in the home, street, field or in war, is just fine and dandy.  No-one thinks grooming boy members of gangs to seduce girls and then hand them on to older men for their sexual pleasures, caring nothing for the girls, while both are threatened with other kinds of violence and other dangers if they do not oblige, is just part of life 's rich tapestry. No-one believes women can be beaten, their eyes put out, acid thrown on them because they have upset some man or men, including their spouses.

Nor do most people think inflicting sex with a brother in law as punishment for the death of her husband is a tolerable custom to 'cleanse' a widow of her sin; but surely she is a witch if her husband has died? And there is less clarity on the age at which a girl maybe forced to marry.  Is she still a child when she has her first menses at 9?  If she is a woman she should be married and produce sons and the occasional daughter for her husband.  Who says she should be free to finish school (if she has ever begun), and make her own choices when she is grown up?  Has she been 'cut'?  If not, she will not be desirable to men in any event.  We, this argument might continue, know best what is suitable for us, our culture and our religion.  Universal, inalienable rights only go so far.  Not across our borders.

The first draft of the all important document was produced by UN Women.  Known as the zero document, this year's was generally judged as not too bad. UN Women is leading the work effectively with much that is exactly what women want,. They were canny and wrote something that might actually get agreement. NGOs read it carefully and saw the gaps and silences which if filled, would do more than hold the line and move us forward because the world has changed since Beijing in 1995.  We need finally, as the Norwegian representative said powerfully in her statement to the Commission, to deal with the issue of women's need for reproductive rights, for which we have been fighting for many years.  Almost all the governments of EU countries, together with many from each of the major UN regions, also saw where strengthening the language would do more to ensure access for both women and girls to their human rights, prevent violence against women and girls (this year's CSW theme) and lead to effective services for victims, perhaps even reparation for those subjected to assaults by state actors. But some were quick to see language they did not support and wished to work against.

As we know, political alignments are forged, or have already been made, beforehand. Like-minded governments and like-minded NGOs from left and right, non-secular versus secular, those whose focus is on development and the need for aid, and those from the donor countries such as the USA whose aid cannot be used to even give advice about termination of pregnancies, form groups which do not always hold - and change as the debate over the Agreed Conclusion progresses.  

Some of these alliances clearly have much in common but when you have a cross regional group that includes Russia, Iran, Iraq, the Holy See and Bangladesh (17 countries in all) it is hard to see what bands them together.  And the word is that this particular group may not be holding. And why have next door neighbours in Africa taken opposing positions on the issue, say, of sovereignty?

This issue of sovereignty is new here. Some governments want it to be clear that they will not have the UN telling them what they must do.  They will only do what they wish to do. Such a position is a nonsense in a document such as this. The UN is nothing without being global.  Human rights lie at the base of all its Conventions and while the Beijing Platform for Action and its Declaration and later additions in follow-up meetings are not treaties, they have been signed up to by most governments in the UN and all members of the Commission on the Status of Women.  Just to have a set of paragraphs that are based on existing conventions which are international treaties and then to say, yes, we know we have signed all of these instruments but now we are going to take our own line, mocks the  process and undermines the outcome.

It might be a deal-breaker.

A deal-breaker? Yes.  Last year, when the issue was rural women.  Huge numbers of women globally work the land providing subsistence for their families, their communities - and food for us too.  They are extremely poor, lack basic needs and often have no land rights. As rural women, they suffer few freedoms, even of movement, and have less access to education and information. Yet governments failed to reach consensus.  So there was no agreed outcome at last year's UN CSW.  The EU was right to refuse a final agreement that would have set women back, but no one wants this to happen here again this time. In part it is because the last time when violence against women and girls was discussed at the CSW, in 2003, there also was no agreement - yet it is rare for there to be no outcome at CSW. 

The UK and other states have been working well ahead of the meeting in meetings around the world seeking to build alliances and consensus on ways forward. 6000 NGOs had registered for the meeting, and more than 100 are from the UK. We have been working since July 2012 to build an alliance of UK based civil society organisations, and are providing the liaison with the Government here at the meeting as well as in preparation for and we hope following it. We are privileged to meet every day and learn from one another.  On Linked-in, Dutch colleagues and ourselves who know what goes on here, have been explaining and bringing in women who don't know about this meeting.  The Dutch also have a phenomenal web site, WO=MEN in New York, which publishes the documents ahead of the game as well as explaining and commenting on them. We are hearing that the Philippines, El Salvador (both members of the Executive of CSW) as well as Pakistan, are encouraging good outcomes. Australia is a powerful voice too.

Right now, governments and NGOs alike are struggling to find language acceptable to all that enhances our rights; sets out actions to be taken that will prevent the whole range of violence, and protects women and girls, offering them choices and supporting victims. We want the trade in our bodies through prostitution and trafficking to cease - many of us seeking the so-called Swedish model that criminalizes the buying of sex and decriminalises those involved in prostitution.

Men and women with disabilities are here and making their voices heard. For the first time at the CSW, violence against women and girls with disabilities is being discussed and good language is being inserted. The Judith Trust, put on a side event that was very well attended where 'Jane's story' showed how abuse of a women with learning disabilities and mental health problems suffered abuse on buses in London which amounted to hate crime, gender-based violence and racism - all three.  We need these issues to be mainstreamed and UN Women has proposed a meeting of CEDAW, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and perhaps the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Progress.

The bottom line is -  and we have heard much about this throughout the CSW meeting - men and boys must change.  This whole appalling mess rests on inequality - gender inequality.  Just because someone is female she becomes a 'legitimate target'.  Young men have been here this year, speaking out for their own self-reflective need to change and governments, including the UK, have some great programmes to make change happen. The Netherlands is supporting young women and men, boys and girls, to get together to discuss the issues and find their own solutions. They are part of  'We Can Young' and are using social media to communicate and reach out to each other.

We have only a few hours left to reach a good outcome to these negotiations and there is language we need, yet to be agreed - 'intimate partners' or 'intimate relationships' recognising all of us of every age and stage of life who love another human being but are not married to them; 'sexual orientation' and 'gender identity'; and 'human rights defenders'. 

This CSW session has been different - there is a buzz and expectation that our Governments cannot, must not let women and girls across the globe down. New language and language resting on previous strong covenants, is not yet written into Agreed Conclusions, a document that could help change the world.






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