Can advocates maintain momentum without UN’s largest women’s rights gathering?

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A scene from the 2018 Commission on the Status of Women. Photo by: Loey Felipe / U.N.

UNITED NATIONS — Women’s civil society organizations are scrambling to reframe conversations and rethink logistics following the decision earlier this week to postpone the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women events due to COVID-19 public health risks.

“The gathering, the strategic conversations, the panels, the policy discussions ... we are eager for that to be rescheduled.”

— Françoise Girard, president, International Women's Health Coalition

Registered attendees and meeting organizers will likely have a chance to reconvene later this year, as member states and the commission decided in a meeting Monday to postpone, rather than cancel, the U.N.’s largest annual gathering on women’s rights.

About 12,000 people registered to attend, half of whom were expected to descend on New York from March 9-20 for the 64th session of the meeting. Last week, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres recommended scaling down CSW, as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb and governments issue new travel warnings and restrictions. CSW is the latest in a string of development events to be canceled, postponed, or made virtual because of the public health emergency.

“Many feminist groups operate on a shoestring, so some of them have travel insurance, others don't. So everyone is scrambling to see what they can do. The NGO CSW coordinating mechanism has issued a letter explaining what has happened, and there is also SG’s letter, so activists have something they can show the airlines,” said Françoise Girard, president of the International Women's Health Coalition. “We are mindful this is causing a lot of turmoil and possibly financial loss for many people.”

IWHC and Women Deliver are among the organizations that plan to still hold some virtual consultations over the next few weeks and months.

“Our global community of partners, spanning sectors and geographies, will continue to convene through bilateral meetings, phone and Skype calls, webinars, and other digital activations to seize the spotlight of Generation Equality and build momentum for a gender-equal world,” Women Deliver said in a statement issued this week.

Also this week, nearly 500 organizations from 92 countries signed a letter encouraging CSW to establish “different modes of engagement,” such as online sessions or written submission channels, in the lead-up to the rescheduled CSW. The change of date will “undoubtedly affect the level of participation of diverse women's movements and civil society organizations, not least due to cost implications,” the letter reads.

The letter additionally calls for the U.N. to issue letters of support that could aid in travel reimbursements.

But the postponement might actually make the event more inclusive once it actually happens, according to Shaida Badiee, managing director of Open Data Watch.

“People are not disappointed — they would rather it would be postponed in its entirety than scaled down. Some organizations couldn’t make it anyway, because of multiple travel advisories,” Badiee said. “Everyone is so nervous [that] it is, in fact, a relief. It was the most responsible decision to cancel it for now.”

Member states, represented by their permanent missions to the U.N., will still meet Monday to adopt a political declaration that has already been negotiated. The declaration largely reaffirms commitments to gender equality and the Beijing Platform for Action — which marks its 25th anniversary this year — according to Girard.

The declaration was negotiated and finalized without the women's movement present, she said, although there were consultations with civil society outside of the formal negotiations.

“They did it again this year. That is the biggest concern we have, is shunting civil society aside, and that’s why we were so concerned about having a one-day CSW, washing your hands of it,” Girard said. “We have to constantly make the point that the women’s movement needs to be on the table for the conversation to be meaningful.”

The declaration, set to be made public Monday, does not mention sexual and reproductive health and rights. It calls for strengthened social protection systems to empower women and girls and a mainstreaming of gender into climate change and disaster risk reduction policies, according to the latest version seen by Devex.

Olof Skoog, European Union ambassador to the U.N., described the negotiations as an “uphill battle,” but that he was satisfied with the end result. The U.S. was among the governments that pushed for traditional definitions of family, excluding LGBTQ families. The document also avoids a definition of family.

“The mission was not to move backwards on the normative agenda, rather than to move issues forward,” Skoog said.

Girard noted that the declaration, which can serve as guidance on programming to UN Women and other groups, is just one part of CSW.

“The gathering, the strategic conversations, the panels, the policy discussions — that is really the meat of it,” Girard said. “So we are eager for that to be rescheduled, and governments have agreed with us, so that is good.”

One option is to hold CSW in New York in July, following the U.N.’s High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. The Generation Equality event in Paris in July has also been floated as another forum for the reworked CSW.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.