Last night I went to a reception hosted by the Minister for Women Harriet Harman at the residence of the UK’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN. It is the first time the Minister has been to CSW and after a weekend of bilateral meetings and high level sessions she was frank about how overwhelming she was finding the whole process, calling it ‘baffling’.
Most of the UK NGOs in the room at the reception appeared to be equally confused. Even those that had attended the two day NGO forum over the course of Saturday and Sunday were unsure about some of the most basic elements of the upcoming week’s conference. For example, nobody seemed to yet know whether there would be what is known as an ‘outcome document’ – a kind of call to action for states – or whether there would be a milder ‘declaration’ – restating states’ commitment to the agenda. (More information has since been released, which we will cover in future posts.)
The Women’s National Commission (WNC), which attempts to coordinate UK NGOs and enable them to influence the position of the UK delegation – the official government representation to the UN negotiations – on draft text (for outcome documents for example), was no more enlightened. It hadn’t even had a chance to see the draft text that the government had apparently already approved because it had been so busy supporting the Minister to meet her key counterparts in advance of the start of the conference. So the day before negations were set to begin, no one had laid eyes on the document that would be worked on. In the face of such confusion, I do wonder how UK women’s NGOs are meant to influence the proceedings.
What was extremely positive about last night was the clear signal by the UK government and Harriet Harman that they recognize the importance of both the CSW and the negotiations on the new UN gender entity – what the Minister likes to call ‘the Women’s Agency’. Working closely with senior officials from her department, the Government Equalities Office (GEO), the Minister has been delivering an active programme of work on this agenda as today's press release from her office highlights, including publishing a new briefing on the gender entity (hard copies were available at the reception).
In taking up the baton from the Department for International Development (DFID) in this way, the Minister for Women and GEO has raised the political profile of the gender entity and committed the UK government in a much more active way to its development. Now two departments are supporting this work, as well as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in a less public way. The importance of having a dedicated and high profile government minister championing the entity should not be underestimated. Of all the things Harriet Harman could be doing this past weekend, she chose this. What we need to know now from the UK government is whether they will back this political commitment with more than words: will the Minister deliver the money?