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Religious and market fundamentalisms threaten gender equality at UN summit

As the US fosters a backlash at the UN Commission on the Status of Women, states from Lebanon to Namibia are taking more progressive positions.

Anne Marie Goetz
13 March 2019
UN Commission on the Status of Women opening session, March 2019.
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Photo: Li Muzi/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved.

More than 10,000 people are meeting at the 63rd annual gathering of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York this fortnight (11-22 March), to discuss women’s access to social security, social services, and infrastructure.

Never before has social protection – pensions, health insurance, social security, child benefit, parental leave – been addressed by the CSW. Achieving progress on these issues is threatened by both religious and market fundamentalisms – though a number of states including Lebanon, Namibia, and Uruguay are resisting this backlash.

These issues are crucial for women who comprise 65% of the world’s people above retirement age without any regular pension. Women also do between twice to four times the unpaid domestic labour than men do. A quarter of the world’s schools lack sanitation facilities, forcing too many girls to miss class because of their periods.

Social protection, social services, and infrastructure can alleviate women’s unpaid work and eliminate the penalties women and girls suffer because of their gender. Ensuring access to social protection and reducing women’s unpaid labour are also two targets of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, guiding development efforts until 2030.

Though these two are the only targets (out of 169) that were weighted with the caveat ‘nationally appropriate’. This excuses countries from meeting universal standards on gender equality in social protection, or redistributing unpaid domestic work to men.

Social protection for women challenges gender roles through offering alternatives to women’s dependence on men

CSW meetings centre on negotiations between countries over a consensus ‘outcome document’ identifying global priorities for action. This document may not have the force of law but its negotiation provides an annual health check on states’ commitments to taking the sometimes politically difficult steps needed to promote women’s rights.

A ‘zero draft’ of this year’s document was prepared and published in January, ahead of the meeting. Comments from national delegations, on this draft, reveal two key patterns in the backlash against its progressive recommendations.

The first is the socially conservative, sometimes religious fundamentalist, rejection of the feminist idea that gender is a social construct. Social protection for women is seen as a threat to their agendas because it challenges so-called ‘traditional’ gender roles through offering alternatives to women’s dependence on men.

A set of about 25 countries align behind this position – including countries with powerful religious communities and former socialist states such as Russia and Eastern European countries. The US’s positions now seem to align with this group, which is also supported by a number of large and loud ultra-conservative civil society organisations including C-Fam, CitizenGo, and the International Organisation for the Family.

These countries and NGOs – which typically oppose sexual rights, sexuality education for adolescents and reproductive rights as well – have challenged the word ‘gender’ in the outcome document, preferring the binary ‘women and men’. They assert that the ‘traditional’ heterosexual family is the only acceptable one, and that heterosexual marriage is the context for sex, child rearing, aging – and related care needs.

Market fundamentalism drives the second type of backlash. In neoliberal economic frameworks, social protection is a matter for private arrangements to manage risks and episodes that might interrupt income flows, such as the loss of a job, or – in this perspective – having a baby. For these fundamentalists it is up to individuals to buy insurance, save for the future, or contract domestic labour and childcare.

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund – often seen as the standard bearers of such market fundamentalism, and its global expansion – do recognise patterns of vulnerability, and have prescribed targeted safety net programmes such as direct cash transfers to mothers (which are often conditional on keeping kids in school).

But these types of safety nets may reinforce gender roles (such as mothering) and have created what’s been called a ‘new maternalism’ (in the context of European social policy), or ‘maternalist’ benefit delivery in developing countries.

Targeting benefits narrowly, providing social protection to the very poorest only, and with very low levels of support, can also stigmatise the poor and not change the conditions of poverty. This is why the International Labour Organisation recommends unconditional social protection for all – such as a Universal Basic Income, and benefits to challenge gender roles, like paternity leave.

Under this approach, social protection is a public investment in eliminating the penalties women pay (such as shouldering the burden of childcare) because of their gender. But this concept of universal social protection disrupts the dominant market orthodoxy which prefers a residual role for the state when private systems fail.

The US, Bahrain and Malaysia have reiterated that the family – not the state – is the sole source of social protection for many women

The US, Bahrain and Malaysia have reiterated during this week’s CSW discussions that the family – not the state – is the main source of social protection for many women. This is what I’d call a ‘family fallback’ approach which, combined with cuts to public services, requires women to expand their mothering roles to pick up the slack.

CSW observes International Women's Day in New York, USA, 2019. | Photo: LI MUZI/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Some countries, including Russia and Saudi Arabia, defend this maternal focus as a national cultural preference. The US is now among those supporting this view, arguing that any proposals on women’s rights should only be applied ‘as nationally appropriate’. This allows the notion of ‘national sovereignty’ to trump global standards on gender equality.

But the US position is so extreme that Shannon Kowalski, advocacy and policy director at the International Women’s Health Coalition, told me it’s expected that “major fractures will emerge” even with its conservative friends. Few developing countries can stomach the Trump government’s drift towards abstinence as the foundation of family planning.

Moreover, the US’s refusal to participate in the 2018 Global Compact for Immigration discussions has alienated countries such as the Philippines, Mexico and Indonesia, which have proposed, for instance, that social security benefits earned by immigrant women should be portable and redeemable when they return home.

A diverse counter-movement against the current ‘illiberal drift’ is visible this year

A diverse counter-movement against the current global ‘illiberal drift’ is also visible at this year’s CSW. The ‘Buenos Aires Group’, consisting of many South American states (notably Argentina, Chile and Uruguay), has emerged as a defender of LGBTIQ rights and a skeptic about privatisation of public services.

This year Tunisia and Lebanon, in the Arab states group, and South Africa, Namibia, Liberia and Cape Verde in the ‘Africa Group’ of countries, are championing progressive positions on women’s rights as well. This support from the Global South vitally shows that the gender equality agenda is not just the concern of the usual suspects in the North – Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein and the EU.

It’s not expected that this CSW will yield any formal advances on issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity. These have long been particularly contentious issues at this annual UN meeting, with growing tension in particular over trans rights.

Jessica Stern, executive director of the LGBTIQ rights organisation Outright International, told me: “We keep our expectations realistic. Our strategy is to fight for related concepts, and to try to avoid use of binary language in relation to gender”.

But against the backdrop of profound turbulence in US politics and patterns elsewhere of democratic decay and attacks on women human rights defenders, women’s rights organisations the world over and a few states are stepping forward to provide bold alternatives to religious and market fundamentalisms.

The CSW has become the largest annual assembly of women’s rights activists in the world, and feminist activists are still upbeat despite the challenges. As a leading member of the NGO CSW Forum told me, at the outset of this year’s meeting: “This is the most political moment of the year. Not the [UN] General Assembly. It is a marvelous moment for gender equality”.

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