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How power works for women

About the author
Solana Larsen is managing editor of Global Voices Online.She sits on the board of openDemocracyUSA after being its editor for 5 years.
How is the condition of women improved and thereby the world changed? Two intense weeks at the United Nations leave Solana Larsen with a few answers and more questions

These past two weeks, I have been blogging the United Nations meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) for openDemocracy.

Forty-five governments and hundreds of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) gathered on 26 February - 9 March 2007 to discuss the conditions of women and girls around the world and agree on a document of recommendations for governments.

I've heard horror stories all week about forced marriages, sexual violence, illness and death, and frightening statistics on how long we still have to go before even half of the world's women can say they live under acceptable conditions. Yet the meeting has been met by deafening silence by most media, including blogs and the alternative press. The only ones who haven't missed a beat are the anti-abortion Christian right.

There is something a little inane about complaining something isn't being covered when you're in the process of writing about it. But it can be useful if it makes you think of the reasons why. After all, in the case of women, we're talking about half of the world's population, the majority of the world's media consumers, and everybody in the whole world's mother. You'd think you could come up with something of interest.

Now that International Women's Day has come and gone, we're likely to hear a little something from everyone. The United Nations even organised two special additional meetings related to women, so national newspapers around the world can write that their ministers appeared in the general assembly and read aloud a statement about how committed they are to women (yawn). I get the feeling when people talk about UN meetings being ineffectual this is the type of thing they are referring to. Podium politics serves very little purpose.

The CSW is not such a meeting. For one, most of the people there represent NGOs who work for women's empowerment around the world. Many of the representatives on the government delegations are researchers, NGOs, or ministers with direct responsibility in the field of gender equality. Most everyone is committed to the cause.

It's true that much of what happens is a little dull. Delegations shut themselves in to discuss word-by-word additions or subtractions to the text of the meeting. Then they come out and argue about it. Then they shut themselves back in to discuss it some more.

This is repeated throughout the week.

The political action happens between the lines. Agitated gossip in the Vienna Café during negotiations ranges widely: from the European Union having been taken over by Catholics, to the United States trying to make abortion sound bad by tying it to a paragraph on the killing of baby girls in places like China and India. Which leads to the question of whether Indonesia can vote for an American proposal that makes China look bad? What are the conservative Latin American countries really thinking about the new progressive line of Mercosur?


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 took place on 29 February - 9 March 2007. Its priority theme was “the elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence against the girl child”.

Also in openDemocracy: our Women UNlimited blog from and about the 2007 Commission on the Status of Women by Jane Gabriel and Solana Larsen

More in openDemocracy on the global rights of women:

Patricia Daniel, “Women, violence and empowerment: the world we live in
(23 February 2007)

Pinar Ilkkaracan, “Do women and girls have human rights?
(26 February 2007)

Sarah Lindon, “Gendered states
(8 March 2007)

Vibrancy without voice

Slow and bureaucratic? Yes. Ineffectual? No.

The meeting is an excellent opportunity for NGOs to lobby sympathetic governments. This isn't always their own. I spoke to representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union (Aclu) who said they had gotten support from Turkey to include a paragraph on protecting teenage girls from prison. If the paragraph is included in the final document they can use it to put pressure on the United States to do something about abusive conditions in American juvenile detention centres. This is just one example. Multiply this by hundreds of NGOs and you begin to see how power works in this process.

Finally, there are the parallel events of the NGOs and inter-governmental organisations (IGOs). These happened in the Church Center across the street and were open to anyone. Some were strategic planning meetings, others just informational panels. Just looking at the programme can make you dizzy with curiosity if you're open to it.

An agenda that initially seemed confusing was also full of opportunities to learn something new. When else do you get a chance to discuss the role of Iraqi women in creating peace, find out about the indigenous-language ATM machines in rural Bolivia, or ask a 12-year old girl from Malawi what she thinks of the world? If only journalists were just lurking to pick up ideas for future stories.

Where is the media coverage?

I've seen a vibrant movement of women working very practically and aggressively to make sure the UN reform process makes women's issues a real priority.

I've seen for myself in the internal dynamics of the meeting that the rights of women are under attack from certain governments, religious groups, and anti-abortion NGOs.

I've also learned a great deal about how NGOs create local political change through global institutions.

Please don't think I blame the media entirely, because I have yet to see a really fetching press release on any of the women's NGO websites I've been scouring for background information on the CSW. Why? The UN press office can't be expected to do anything but photocopy bland statements like the one issued by secretary-general Ban Ki-moon for International Women's Day. The best excuse I've heard so far is from an Indymedia photojournalist who left a comment in the blog saying she couldn't get press credentials because she is a transgender woman, who doesn't have an ID that documents her gender.

Isabel Hilton (openDemocracy's editor) wrote an article on the Guardian's Comment is Free website pointing out the irony that the CSW is going on at the United Nations and the only news we're getting on gender politics is about Britney Spears's shaved head. Take a look at the comments beneath her post. It's interesting to see just how provoking people still manage to find women's rights even on a British media website.





A match to the bubble

So why did the CSW happen inside a closed bubble this year? It may be as simple as what defines whether a government delegation will be progressive or not one year. It depends who is assigned to it... other years have definitely had more coverage. But I get the feeling more generally, that women's issues have been relegated to women's blogs and women's publications and not necessarily the same places you have all sorts of other political discourse.

You also get the feeling that (in the rich part of the world) the women's movement has become so heavily institutionalised and funded, that they perhaps can't exude quite enough grassroots energy to create big sparks in young women.

I'd like to hear your comments, because I still don't really understand it.

It is important for people to know about the UN process in order for it to work. NGOs need to be aware of resolutions before they can use them as a tool to pressure governments with. We also need media coverage and public debate. Particularly with international politics, when you learn something new, it makes you see things you couldn't see before. It often seems so intangible and placeless, that when you learn something of the process, it makes the flow of power seem so much less mysterious.

openDemocracy isn't really one to preach, we've come late (but proudly) to the game of voicing gender politics. The good news is we won't be looking back.

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