UN CSW: still failing to count all women

When will the CSW agree that without counting everyone, transwomen, lesbians and bisexuals included, gender equality will remain out of reach?

Joanna Lockspeiser
31 March 2016

“At the first CSW, I was excited. At the next, I was hopeful. Now I’m just realistic.”

Leigh Ann van der Merwe of the South African Feminist Collective S.H.E.  has seen it before: a profound failure of nerve by the international community when it comes to defending the rights of Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender women.  That this happens even at a meeting whose sole purpose is to advance women’s rights – the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women which just wrapped up its ten day deliberations in New York – is disappointing.

CSW events:

In the sixty years since its founding, the UN Commission on the Status of Women has never once referenced sexual orientation or gender identity in outcome documents.  This year the official theme was implementation of the new Sustainable Development Goals.  In the over 900 events scheduled, there were less than a dozen that addressed ‘diversity’ and even fewer addressed LBT issues.  At the UNFPA event “SDG Indicators from a Gender Lens”, gender expert Alexandra Pittman lamented missing language regarding the trans population when talking about women, particularly in the context of conflict, where they are extremely vulnerable to violence.   

At the Legal Resource Center and S.H.E event “Violence Against Transgender Women and the SDGs”, an audience member asked whether Leigh Ann van der Merwe and fellow speaker Bessie Deyi saw any hope of eventual inclusion of LBT issues in the CSW agreed conclusions. Van der Merwe wasn’t hopeful, and Deyi noted: “CSW events have grown from the past but the lack of language is frightening.”  Another representative from the Legal Resource Center, which is a South African public action law firm, was more hopeful that in time, CSW will include LBT rights in its deliberations and conclusions.

At a discussion on gender and conflict (centered on the 2015 UN Global Study on Women, Peace and Security) there was next to no effort to build a more inclusive definition of gender or ‘women’.  A speaker from Outright Action International stated, “In talks of gender inequality, it's critical to expand the language and rhetoric to expand who is affected by the violence and oppression.  And that can’t fit into distinct categories of women and men. […]  There is a need to collaborate and cross movements and we can link the LGBTIQ movement into [the] women’s movement.  We need to expand language in world women’s conference.”      


Panel on Expanding Gender Equality, Unbinding the Gender Binary. Photo: WILPF.

At the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) event on “Expanding Gender Equality: Unbinding the Gender Binary”, activist Yee Won Chong, Founder of Say This Not That, spoke on creating spaces for conversations on transgender issues in the United States.  Though the talk was sparsely attended, the speakers were vocal about inclusion of LBT women in the conversation at women’s rights conferences such as the CSW.


Intersectionality is a major theme of the Sustainable Development Goals, with a stress on ‘no-one left behind’ and recognition that people face discrimination on the grounds of many aspects of their identity.  Women’s intersectionality was addressed numerous times throughout the CSW events – for instance the need for specific responses to women’s needs as mothers, heads of families, widows, refugees, educators, members of stigmatized minorities and so on. Trans identity as a feature of discrimination, however, is neglected in these discussions of intersectionality, as is sexual orientation. Although the CSW has come a long way in recognizing that women do not fall into one category, it is far from understanding that transwomen don’t either.  

During the official negotiations there were a number of attempts to include references (in the final conclusions of the CSW) to the significance of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.  Support for this came from the ‘usual suspects’: the Nordics, the Netherlands, Australia and Canada, but also and importantly, a range of Latin American nations such as Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Mexico, where domestic LGBTI movements are significant.  However, strong domestic LGBTI movements did not always translate to determined national positions on the matter – South Africa for instance did not represent the interests of its LGBTI populations, choosing instead to fall in line with the ‘Africa Group’ a continental negotiating bloc in which giants like Nigeria worked with very small countries like Comoros to obstruct any advances in acknowledgement of the rights of sexual and gender minorities.

Sustainable Development Goals

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel! There are already protocols in place” van der Merwe exclaimed in one event. Goal 5 of the SDGs focuses on Gender Equality and although lobbying efforts to include sexual orientation and the range of gender identities failed, there is nothing to stop individual countries from addressing LBT rights in their national efforts to achieve the SDGs.  

The future

“There are more events on LBT this year than years past” van der Merwe noted – a small CSW milestone from her point of view. Perhaps more significant is the creation, in December 2015, of the new UN LGBTI Inclusion Index.  Although it has not been included specifically in the SDGs, the adoption of the index by the UN Development Program (UNDP) is a key development that can be used to highlight abuses on the bases of sexual orientation or gender identity.  UN General Assembly (UNGA) President Mogens Lykketoft stated at the Human Rights Day event last year that without this index, achievement of the SDGs will be undermined.  OutRight Action International, which is providing technical support for the creation of the index, explained why it is so essential to the SDGs.  Without accurate data to record the abuses this vulnerable population faces, their fight remains invisible.  

While many LBT activists said in the past two weeks that the SDGs and agreed conclusions for CSW are a powerful force for change, without inclusion of LBT rights, any progress will be limited.  For example, as van der Merwe described, when a nurse in a public hospital in East London, South Africa tells a transwoman to “go home and dress properly” before being allowed to receive emergency care, we know that ultimate gender equality can never be achieved if all women are not counted.  Without counting everyone, transwomen, lesbians and bisexuals included, the work will never truly be done.

This article is part of oD 50.50’s series covering key debates at this year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women.

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