Women, violence and empowerment: the world we live in

Patricia Daniel
23 February 2007

Interactive expert panels, round tables, workshops, parallel sessions, informal consultations, general discussions, book launches, movies, craft fairs, celebrations, large numbers of people from all over the world developing a shared agenda.

It sounds like the World Social Forum in Nairobi - but no, this is the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) held at the United Nations headquarters in New York. So in comparison, it will be tidy, have air-conditioning and much tighter security.

Read our Women UNlimited blog from the CSW meeting in New York

I've been invited once or twice but never attended. I know it happens annually but it always catches me half by surprise. Although this is the international forum for addressing gender equality, it seems to pass by each year with very little mention in the establishment media.

The CSW is a United Nations body, consisting of forty-five members appointed on a four-year term, which reviews the world's progress towards the elimination of discrimination against women. The fact that this annual event is now in its fifty-first session is sufficient indication that the UN's goal here has not yet been achieved.

The Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw) was adopted by the UN in 1979 and has been ratified by 182 member-states. Countries that have ratified or acceded to the convention are legally bound to put its provisions into practice and to report regularly on implementation, receiving comments from the Cedaw committee on what further national action should be taken.

So what's going on?

There are multiple sources and statistics to demonstrate the scale of the problems still to be addressed. The United Nations Development Programme annually publishes a Gender and Development Index (GDI) and Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) for 175 countries. In Britain, the Equal Opportunities Commission provides annual reports on gender equality.

The World Economic Forum, at its own annual Davos conference in 2007, launched its own gender report based on a new tool that focuses on the relative size of the gender gap rather than levels of women's empowerment and access.

Saadia Zahidi, the economist who heads of the WEF Women Leaders Programme, helped develop the tool. She says: "The survey shows that globally, the gender gap in educational attainment and health (life expectancy) has been closed by 90% but in terms of economic participation and opportunity only by 50% and as regards political empowerment (representation in decision-making structures) by a mere 15%."

But this data doesn't give much insight into the impact on the ground, and the words themselves can mislead: "closing the gender gap" in education and health sounds positive, as if there's not much more left for us to do there. This is why the CSW discussions - focusing this year on the elimination of discrimination and violence against the girl child - are so important.

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), part of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc), is the principal global policy-making body dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women.

It meets each year at the UN headquarters in New York to evaluate progress on gender equality, identify challenges, set global standards and formulate concrete policies to promote gender equality and advancement of women worldwide

The fifty-first session of the CSW takes place on 29 February - 9 March 2007. Its priority theme is “the elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence against the girl child”.

As part of its 50.50 initiative openDemocracy has invited two writers, one from the north and one from the south, to blog the Commission on the Status of Women and report on the effectiveness of the process

Violence against the girl child

The first and foremost of the issues raised by women at the World Social Forum in Nairobi in January 2007 - as I blogged from the event - was an end to violence. This includes the capitalist-driven conflicts across Africa which impact on women and girls as victims - and as survivors in post-conflict societies. It also includes hidden violence against women and girls at home, and in particular the contravention of reproductive and sexual-health rights, which deprives them of human dignity and is often life-threatening.

After a recent three-month research project in Mali, my understanding of opportunity for the girl child goes something like this. If she manages to survive childbirth (one out of every four children die at that stage), she enters the world with a stillborn future: likely to be genitally mutilated at five days old (the incidence of female genital mutilation [FGM] in Mali is 98%), barred from basic education because of school fees, married at 12 to a much older man who will rape her on their wedding night and may give her HIV/Aids.

Otherwise, she may face a childhood of drudgery as an unpaid servant or, if it could be worse, selling herself for £1 an hour to local officials, soldiers and so-called sex tourists.

A lucky minority of women escape most of this to go through university and eventually take up posts of responsibility; but they too still have to struggle against prejudice in order to claim - thirty years down the line - their rightful place in society. Meanwhile, young women university students facing difficulty in paying their fees are increasingly taking up the option of sex-based liaisons with older African or European men - which does not bode well for the future of gender relations.

In Kenya, the recent suspension of fees for primary education has encouraged more girls into school. It is hoped that this will help reverse the trend of 9- and 10-year-old girls going into prostitution at tourist resorts. My own tour guide with GoAfricaSafaris, Anastacia, from an educated Masai family, was lucky enough to go through the system to train at the national tourism college and gain a recognised qualification. Now an economically independent young woman, she told me she never goes out dancing at night because she's afraid of being raped.

But the CSW discussions are not only about opportunities for girls in the global south. Each member-state of the United Nations is required to report on progress towards gender equality. The 2005 CEDAW report from the Women's National Commission (WNC) in Britain highlights similar problems in one of the world's richest countries.

Home Office research indicates that 45% of women in the United Kingdom have been subject to violence of some kind during their lives, 5% of women over the age of 16 have been raped, and two-thirds of those living in refuges are children (indirect victims of domestic violence). Underage prostitution, trafficking of women, female genital mutilation and forced marriage (including of minors) are all present within our own society.

The Unicef report on the well-being of children and young people in rich countries, released on 14 February 2007, puts Britain at the bottom of the league-table of twenty-one developed countries.

Addressing violence against women is one of the campaigns of the National Alliance of Women's Organisations (Nawo), which coordinates the European Women's Lobby the umbrella organisation of women's organisations in the European Union. In January 2007, Nawo hosted a three-day European event in London attended by Yakin Ertürk, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women.

At the WSF, the feminist dialogues project Isis told me that the issue of violence against women is the one which unites feminists from the north with women's movements in the south. It applies equally to all social classes and all ethnic groups.

The WNC and Nawo will be in New York running a joint workshop to develop indicators on violence against women: not a simple task, since violence manifests itself in so many different ways.

Patricia Daniel is senior lecturer in social development at the Centre for International Development and Training, University of Wolverhampton, England. She is involved in a study on gender, peace and stability in Mali, in collaboration with the University of Bamako and the Centre for Democracy and Development in Lagos. Her website is here

Patricia Daniel blogged the World Social Forum in Nairobi for openDemocracy – see " Women at the World Social Forum"

Also by Patricia Daniel in openDemocracy:

“ Mali: everyone’s favourite destination” (11 May 2006)

“ Africa: ask the women” (3 August 2006)

“Soldiers without guns” (3 November 2006)

“Africa: tools of liberation” (23 November 2006)

“Is another world possible without a women’s perspective? ” (18 January 2007)

The role of the state

"New forms of violence have emerged and advances towards equality and freedom from violence, previously made by women, have been eroded", says the former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan in his report on this topic, which will be presented and discussed at the CSW.

His conclusions focus on necessary action: "States should take urgent and concrete measures to ensure gender equality and protect women's human rights; States must close the gap between international standards and national laws, policies and practices..." And finally: "The United Nations should take a stronger, better coordinated and more visible leadership role to address violence against women."

It's clear that women's groups around the world are not satisfied with the (lack of) progress made by member-states and the UN system. Every year in New York there is a strong NGO caucus, which runs its own events (like the WNC and Nawo workshop) prior, parallel and subsequent to the CSW. Its aim is "influencing outcomes, networking, taking it all back home." This year, the NGO Working Group on Girls has organised for girl respondents (under 18) to travel to New York to inform the discussions which are to be held about their future.

As Carolyn Hannan director of the UN Division of the Advancement of Women has said: "... increasing the numbers of women in organisations is not enough to bring about changes in how organisations do business."

So, while it's important to have the data, has the Cedaw monitoring process actually brought about change? Do high-level statements from the UN really make a difference? Although the CSW is a woman-focused and largely female event, is it any more effective in influencing outcomes than, for example, the World Social Forum?

The World March of Women a collective which over recent years has been involved in addressing gender equality within the WSF process itself as well as promoting alliances between the feminist and other social movements, feels there must be alternative ways of addressing the problem.

It says: "The non-application of gender equality action plans signed by governments and international organisations (has) revealed the ongoing importance of street acts and mass mobilisation ... direct action for political pressure."

A collection of articles written by African women launched at the WSF highlights the same issues in the local context. Sarah Musaka writes "The state apparatus is used to clamp down on rights and silence the voices of dissent. In these circumstances, the priority will not be to implement laws and regulations that promote rights, particularly those of women."

A clear message from the Nairobi WSF - one that the Commission on the Status of Women must echo - is the need for all social movements, and all women and men, to work together and finally hold governments to account for social justice and the whole range of human rights.

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