New York: no place for women in action

In an open letter to the United Nations Secretary General, the European Women's Lobby declares that "The 54th Session of the CSW...represents a step backwards by its failure to offer a new vision and mechanisms for implementation"
Margaret Owen
8 March 2010
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This is my last blog and my last visit to the CSW. Truly, hand on heart this time, given all the frustration and the chaos, not to speak of the thousands of pounds and time and effort I have spent just to get here with prepared background papers in order to get “widows” mentioned in the final documents – the so-called Agreed Conclusions, I learnt only in recent days there were never to be any “Agreed Conclusions”. There is simply a Declaration. Why on earth were we, the NGO women, not told this months ago? It feels like betrayal - and even deceit.

We do come here, of course, not only to influence the texts of the documents agreed by the governments of the world, which spell out the actions needed to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women, but with other intentions. Among these are to meet, network, deliberate and strategise with our sisters from around the world; hold brainstorming roundtables with them on what methods we can use to make our governments accountable in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA); identify new and emerging issues, and learn from each other of best practices to achieve our goals of gender equality. However, the main reason why we spend so much money and time to attend this conference is because it is the only one where women’s NGOs have an opportunity to interact with their own and other official delegations of parliamentarians and civil servants in the hope that they will see their evidence-based arguments for government actions reflected, at least in some measure, in the CSW final documents.

In an earlier blog from the CSW I spoke of the fiery trade unionist who spoke up at a NGO consultation, describing, in detail, the insulting way those women attending the CSW had been treated. I’ve now got her name. Readers, she is Gemma Adaba, the UN representative of the ITUC (International Trade Union Confederation) - a lady worth being in touch with if you want to know more about why we are so angry.

The European Women’s Caucus at the CSW 54 composed of various women’s NGOs under the EWL (European Women’s Lobby) and WIDE hit back. They have sent a letter of protest to the UN Secretary-General. It is a dignified and moderate letter – and surely will be read carefully and with respect. In an open letter addressed to the UN Secretary General and the UN member States concerning the 54th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women New York they write:

"The Fourth World Conference on Women produced the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA), a comprehensive women's human rights paradigm that envisaged the transformation of power relations. This was a global vision of social justice, equality, development and peace. Fifteen years later the BPfA would seem to be considered by governments a technical instrument, its substance has been depoliticised and diluted. The key implementation strategy of gender mainstreaming has been disarticulated from its critical perspective in terms of power relations and inequalities within and between countries and regions. Women's organisations have been the driving force behind the Beijing process, and the Secretary general has repeatedly emphasised the importance of civil society contribution to the work of the UN, particularly toward the achievement of women's rights. As representatives of such organisations we are deeply concerned that, despite the above, at the CSW 54, the voices of women have been effectively silenced. This is manifested by:

- The Declaration having been agreed ahead of time and adopted without consultations with civil society

- The absence of information on opportunities for civil society to influence the conduct and outcome of the CSW meetings

- Poor logistics and facilities that prevent women from participating effectively, reflecting the lack of consideration given to the Beijing process.

The presence of such a huge gathering of women has been used instrumentally  to implement an empty Declaration, another example of reducing space for engagement between governments and civil society.

The 54th Session of the CSW......represents a step backwards by its failure to offer a new vision and mechanisms for implementation." 

How has all this effected me and my issue – the plight, needs and roles of the millions of widows of all ages, across the world, affected and afflicted with poverty, stigma, violence, lack of rights, without access to justice, often “chased off” from their homes, denied inheritance, land and property rights and subject to oppressive discrimination and abuse especially in conflict and post-conflict scenarios?

Well, hugely. So much so that when I learnt the truth about the Declaration and there was to be no “Agreed Conclusion” with reference to which I had been working for months to get some wording about widowhood issues into it, I must admit I burst into tears on 2nd avenue, right outside the UK Mission to the UN. I thought of the £250 I had spent to go to Geneva in November for the pre-NGO CSW meetings where I had managed, not without some struggle, to get an entire extra paragraph added to the Europe NGOs recommendations to the Economic Commission for Europe – on widowhood, poverty and exclusion. Then, thinking back to when we held the WPD meeting: Agreeing Global Action on Widowhood Issues through the Beijing +15; CEDAW; MDGs and the UN SCR 1325 anger erupted once again. Because our important meeting, planned for months beforehand, supported by printed-out background papers and publications, had not been found a location even in the Church Centre, but was held a block away thanks to the New York Branch of the ICJW. Many people who wanted to attend did not do so - possibly because it was a walk away from the UN, and people could not easily find it, or the address put them off, if they did not know New York well. We expected maybe 50 people or more, and only 30 came and none of the African, South Asian and Middle Eastern women who had wanted to come could make it.

Our panellists were exceptional, wonderful, compelling, from DRC, Nepal, India, Nigeria, as well as Ferdous ala Begum, of Bangladesh, a CEDAW member who was fulsome in her praise for the WPD presentation in Geneva in February, and gave us good advice about what we need to do next to further action by governments to address the widowhood issues.

But this was a meeting that should have been held in a conference room in the UN, so that delegates as well as NGO women could have attended together. When, some years ago, we were welcomed into the UN and permitted to hold meetings in the Conference rooms, even in the Dag Hammarskold Theatre, we had to turn people away the room was so crowded, and within the UN we could draw the attention of the official delegations, the governments, and representatives of UN agencies, to this neglected gender issue.

For me, the message is clear. The action area for women is not in New York but in Geneva where all the human rights machineries are there to be used. Oh yes, I know that we are promised a new “Gender Entity”, UN Department for Women by September, but I don’t see it having real legs for a long time, and certainly not capable or equipped to take on the challenge of widowhood issues.

WPD will certainly need some financial backing and funding if it is to carry on but it won’t be wasting my modest pension money, nor the donations of friends and relations that so far has kept us going, on any more trips to the CSW in New York.

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