Women and the post-2015 agenda: are you on board the ark?

With the roller-coaster of the CSW just finished and the resignation of UNWomen Director Michelle Bachelet, the next year promises stormy seas ahead for setting the future agenda for women’s rights. Alice Welbourn sets out some priorities for civil society in relation to HIV, gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive rights.

Alice Welbourn
18 March 2013

The 57th Commission on the Status of Women came to a nail-biting end at around 8pm East Coast time on Friday evening. Whilst negotiations during the two weeks of meetings had been long, hard and fraught, the Outcome Document is remarkably well received by women’s rights activists around the world. There are still huge gaps, including securing gay rights, sex education for adolescents, access to contraception to abortion, to recognising marital rape, to recognition of violence against sex workers and against women who use drugs. There is also still need to firm up some of the language of other areas, but on the whole far more was achieved than feared. Violence against women in healthcare settings, such as forced or coerced abortions or sterilisations and forced use of contraceptives by women with HIV and other vulnerable women, was recognised, as were the links between violence against women and HIV. And provision of post-exposure prophylaxis after rape was accepted for the first time. Those involved in the negotiations deserve hearty congratulations for all their determination. There was also the unexpected announcement by UNWomen Executive Director Michelle Bachelet, at the end of her closing speech, of her resignation. Never a dull moment.

I was in New York too for four nights over last weekend, with colleagues. Our main focus there wasn’t the current CSW at all, however, but the post-2015 agenda, which is designed to take over once the MDGs run out.  The post-2015 development agenda is the key theme for next year's UN Commission on the Status of Women, and the post-2015 agenda process is steaming away as we speak – yet few have even heard of it, let alone clambered on board. So we were meeting to find out more about it and begin to strategise our involvement in the debate. The MDGs have been good in some aspects, but extremely poor for women’s rights in not recognising violence against women, or women’s sexual and reproductive rights (SRHR).

The ATHENA Network, Gestos, IWHC and the Salamander Trust convened the 2-day think tank of 45 civil society women’s rights activists, to learn from and share with one another our knowledge of the post-2015 process to date and to brainstorm around how best we could engage with it, specifically with reference to building bridges across different movements working on women’s sexual and reproductive rights, HIV and overcoming gender-based violence (GBV). We quickly established that we all felt vague about the process so far. Yet much has already happened and it is not a moment too soon to become engaged.

We very quickly established that key websites have already been set up which we should all visit. The first is worldwewant2015.org  where the eleven themes being considered in this process are listed together with summaries for each of the thematic consultations; The themes are : inequalities, governance, health, environmental sustainability, population dynamics, water, growth and employment, conflict and fragility, food security and nutrition, education, energy. An events calendar lists consultations for each of these (they will all be finished by the end of this month). There are also plans for national consultations, which are said to be happening in 100 countries. However, one set of colleagues involved in GBV work in one African country has heard nothing of this in theirs. So this process isn’t reaching them yet.

Another key website is myworld2015.org where anyone is invited to vote for their own top 6 of the 11 themes. To me the idea of trying to vote for my top 6 themes out of the list above is akin to a lifeboat version of Noah’s ark. How can you vote between issues when they are all critical to the well-being of our planet? But this is the left-brain thinking-dominated world that we live in, ruled by logic and lists, rather than balanced with right-brain wisdom, creativity and an acceptance of the reality of complex adaptive systems,  neuro-biologists and physicists recognize that vertical systems and linear models of change are not appropriate means of planning the world around us. Their research shows that we should be acknowledging, working with and embracing complexity, rather than trying to simplify everything down to top-down linear messages and mind-sets. But I guess such thinking hasn’t yet reached the UN or our governments.

The third top website is post2015hlp.org which names the 27 High Level Panellists who are shaping our futures, their terms of reference and describes the overall process.

The areas we are watching most include health, inequalities and governance. So far, we have a mixed reaction to the consultations. The health consultation draft report makes no mention of HIV in relation to GBV or to governance issues, and whilst there was civil society involvement in the consultation, this statement does not bode well. Meanwhile, the HIV-specific consultation which took place in Amsterdam in January in advance of this health consultation totally omitted any reference to target indicators regarding women’s rights. This presumably because most people still assume that HIV peri-natal transmission programmes do all that is needed for women with regards to HIV, thereby failing to recognise that most peri-natal transmission programmes are actually far more to do with women’s wrongs than with our rights. The inequalities consultation in Copenhagen recognised gender inequalities, including our lack of sexual and reproductive rights, the prevalence of GBV and the challenges of stigma and discrimination faced by people with HIV. Rumour does have it that a goal specifically around gender equality, post-2015 will be forthcoming. The governance consultation report from South Africa is yet to be published.

Over four days our think tank worked together to define 5 strategic priority themes for the post-2015 agenda. We consider them all to be of equal priority and mutually reinforcing:

High level commitment to multi-sectoral approaches that address the diversity of women and girls and our rights. Everyone talks about it, everyone agrees it, yet because there is no evidence base for it, no-one funds it. Instead, services and mindsets remain vertically siloed. In practical terms, this means that poor rural women have to trudge from one centre to another, for blood tests, for contraceptive services, for HIV medication, often with their husband beside them for legal permissions. In policy terms, most countries have no GBV or even a gender equality strategy. If we are lucky there is a bit of gender equality in the HIV National Strategic Plans. But there is rarely mention of HIV in any gender equality strategies that do exist because people just aren’t making the links and several states at the CSW were just refusing to acknowledge the existence of Intimate Partner Violence, despite the evidence of its close reciprocal links with HIV.

Build the diversity of the movement and ensure the representation of those most affected by the issues. Our think tank was intended to bring together women from many diverse backgrounds but we did not have nearly as much geographic diversity as we had hoped. None from Eastern Europe or Asia-Pacific could join us. We just had to invite those we knew would be in New York anyway. Exorbitant US prices and the very weak pound mean that budgetary considerations are paramount. I was lucky to be there at all, even as co-host. Lack of women’s representation is also highlighted by the farce of the recent VOICE trial results, published at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections last week. This trial, which tried to encourage women to take medication regularly to stop them getting HIV, failed because it reckoned without the need to consult with and engage women to involve them properly.  “Biomedical tools do not work in a vacuum but rather in the complex realities of women’s and girls’ lives.” says AVAC Director, Mitchell Warren. How much funding has been spent on that trial? How many years have we been telling policy makers that they need to involve us?

Accountability and implementation  As explained above, the Amsterdam HIV meeting had no mention of women’s rights in its targets and these were also missing from the MDGs. It is essential that we have donors and policy makers held to account over women’s rights. Their goals, targets and indicators should all include these. Maternal health targets are not enough. As we have argued elsewhere, these services often undermine women’s rights. And there is rather more to our lives than having babies.

 Linking global policies to local realities and back again. The word “glocal” is a helpful addition to my vocabulary. Yet this entire post-2015 process is tipped against the very voices we should be listening to most: communities across the world with no access to electronic communications whatsoever. A global eruption of e-surveys and webinars are over-taking face-to-face contact. Moreover, the whole coordination of this process to date has reflected increasingly limited involvement of civil society. Increasing numbers of colleagues, such as Anandi Yuvraj, who used to coordinate the Asia-Pacific chapter of the International Community of Women living with HIV, are just dropping off the internet as they have to close down their offices and work, due to lack of funding.

Resource mobilisation for our collective agenda. Adding to my earlier piece on openDemocracy.5050, there are increasing reports from colleagues around the world that funding for men’s organisations is soaring and their staff numbers are multiplying, whilst women’s rights organisations are really struggling for funds and closing. Men’s organisations have to wake up to this reality and do something proactively to support women’s rights organisations to remain funded and supported. The seeds of resentment are already taking root and unless this imbalance is quickly addressed, many more grassroots and small-scale women’s rights organizations will fold. Related to this were discussions about the “Starbucks syndrome” of large international NGOs which are household names parachuting in, with a lot of funding, celebrity hype and marketing power,  “pinching” local grassroots women’s organizations’ ideas and staff and rebranding them as their own. “I should start to charge them for all the staff I have trained for them over the years” declared one African delegate.

This opens up a bigger question, around the nature of women’s organizing in our fundamentally patriarchal world. As Srilatha Batliwala describes in her two articles, Beyond individual stories: women have moved mountains  and A transformative strategy: the true value of investing in women's rights , one of the key findings from AWID’s research highlights the need for programmes to go to scale, in order to achieve a critical mass with regard to change. More of this in another piece. 

Meanwhile, hold on to your lifejackets: with UN Women on auto-pilot, now that Dr "Noah" Bachelet is returning to shore, there will be stormy weather ahead.




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