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CSW weather vane: fault lines and prospects for women's human rights

As battles over women’s human rights rage on around the world, governments have gathered in New York this week to set some definitive agreements at the UN’s annual Commission on the Status of Women

zohra moosa
7 March 2014

It’s the last year of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the agreement made by the international community on advancing human rights and development globally. Created in 2000, they promised no less than halving extreme poverty and achieving universal primary education – all by 2015.

Most significantly for women, they created a separate stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment (MDG3). A memorable and critical first that should not be underestimated: it helped make the vital case that women’s rights is a substantive development and human rights issue. Through this, it provided political will, demonstrated and allowed others to demonstrate leadership about women’s rights, and also galvanized concrete funding for the rights of women and girls.

But the overall impact of the MDGs on the lives of the world’s girls and women has been patchy at best, and has been a telling disappointment too : the most off-track MDGs are those where gender equality is a cornerstone, namely MDG3 itself, as well as MDG5 on maternal mortality. For example, UN Women estimates that at the pace of the last 15 years, it will take 40 more years to achieve gender parity in parliaments, while progress on reducing the maternal mortality ratio has actually stalled.

The results of the MDGs to date thus provide some important lessons about what a global compact needs to include to deliver for women’s rights. Specifically, they helped to demonstrate why a stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment is so important, but on its own insufficient to achieving the change we want to see. Such a goal has to be robust and UN Women has outlined what this can mean. Most obviously, it must include all the relevant variables no matter how controversial or ‘hard to measure’, and cannot exclude basic issues such as violence against women and girls. But it also needs to be supported by substantively transformative targets within other goals that also affect and are affected by prevailing gender inequalities, i.e. gender needs to be mainstreamed. As the UK’s Gender and Development Network explains, this is known as a ‘twin-track approach’.

On March 10th, the annual UN  Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) begins. It is a chance for the international community to assess its progress on women’s rights, and set the course for deepening advancements going forward. And this year’s theme is ‘Challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls’. Not a moment too soon.

Over the last few years, the CSW has become an increasingly important normative and discursive space. What is discussed and agreed at CSW, while always used by women’s rights advocates to try and advance their case in their local contexts, has of late also been catching the eye of major conservative forces, including the Vatican. These forces have responded to the vibrant and successful efforts of civil society to use CSW to advance women’s rights by increasing their attention and resources towards influencing its outcomes to stall and even roll back on previous gains. Two years ago, they were so successful at dividing and undermining consensus that the CSW closed without any agreed conclusions. Last year, states fought hard to ensure a progressive outcome for the theme of violence against women and girls, and were to a degree successful.

This year’s CSW, as with the last two, therefore serves as a kind of weather vane for where we currently stand on women’s rights, where the major fault lines lie, and what our prospects are for the future.

Agreements set at CSW feed into the discussions of other major annual international convenings and negotiations affecting women, girls and also trans* people, such as the upcoming Commission on Population and Development next month. And as we are continually reminded, the battles over women’s, girls’ and trans* people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights are very much alive; with just two months under its belt, 2014 witnessed Spanish MPs vote to introduce a new anti-choice abortion law; the President of Uganda sign a bill criminalizing homosexuality and one against ‘pornography’ that polices what women wear in public; and MEPs of the European Union vote to criminalize the purchasing of sex, against the advice of sex worker rights activists.

Importantly, the theme for this year’s CSW will inform discussion about what a post-2015 international agenda for human rights and development should look like and include. While the conversation on the post-2015 agenda began some time ago, this year’s ‘agreed outcomes’ from CSW will demonstrate what member states would like to see included in the final version of the post-2015 agenda, on women’s rights. Specifically, women’s rights advocates will be looking to see whether CSW affirms the need for a ‘twin-track approach’: a stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s rights and empowerment, and substantive transformational gender targets within the other goals in the framework. According to Womankind Worldwide, anything less would be going backwards.

Of special interest to many, including those of us at Mama Cash, is how ambitions for women’s rights will be resourced within any future frameworks. What the international community feels are the priorities are of course important, but how governments will ensure these priorities do not become empty promises is vital. As AWID’s evaluation of the Dutch MDG3 fund for women’s rights has shown us, new and dedicated funding that reaches those carrying out the work is what makes the difference. For the post-2015 agenda to be successful and truly transformative then, funding will need to be made available for and accessible to the women’s, girls’ and trans* rights groups that do the groundbreaking work that leads to the sustainable advancement of their human rights.

But the reality is that this political organizing by women’s rights groups and movements is currently being executed against a vicious backlash against women’s rights, around the world. From the retrogressive developments across countries in the north of Africa and the Middle East following the revolutions in 2013, to discriminatory laws being introduced in a number of countries including Indonesia, to the entrenchment of women’s subordination as a result of the financial crisis and gender-biased macroeconomic government policies, such as is occurring in the UK, the future could appear to be quite bleak.

With this in mind, many women’s rights group have been organizing towards this moment for some time, and have set high ambitions for persuading governments to even move beyond the limited goal-target-indicator approach of the MDGs if possible. And as the evidence has shown us, these groups are the critical factor in whether real change occurs.

So, will countries get to that place of progressive consensus during CSW, reaching for a world in which all women, girls and trans* people can enjoy their full human rights? Women’s and girls’ rights groups will be present in the hundreds to fight for it. As the post-2015 agenda is set to transform the world’s approach to development for the next generation, it is inspiring to see women’s rights activists face the CSW with such energy and commitment – to convince the world’s governments that women deserve no less than their full human rights.

Read 5050's coverage of previous CSW gatherings

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