Top takeaways from the UN's largest women's rights gathering

By Amy Lieberman 24 March 2017

Representatives of nongovernmental organizations at the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women. Photo by: Mark Garten / U.N.

The annual Commission on the Status of Women — one of the most influential gatherings on gender worldwide — wraps up its 61st session today, following two weeks of meetings and negotiations that often offered unsatisfactory outcomes for many of the 3,800 civil society representatives who traveled to the United Nations Headquarters.  

While some participants stayed home altogether as a result of U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban, others arrived — only to find that U.N. security would restrict their access to certain negotiating spaces.

And while participants saw tentative changes within the bounds of the U.N. — as Secretary-General António Guterres reiterated commitments for gender parity in leadership positions — they also deliberated over stalled progress on the global gender wage gap.

Devex has been reporting from the CSW at the U.N. Headquarters and across Manhattan for the past two weeks, covering some of the many events headlined by more than 500 organizations. Here are some of the major takeaways.

Via Twitter

Participation

More than 700 civil society groups signed a petition this week denouncing lack of NGO access at the CSW. The letter, signed by groups including Amnesty International, American Jewish World Service and Oxfam, cited unprecedented issues at this year’s events, including U.N. security staff removing NGO pass holders from the building after 6 p.m. — even though some meetings were still running — and NGO participants being prevented from reaching CSW government delegates in U.N. meeting rooms.

The letter was sent to U.N. Women, which helped to resolve access issues, said Lyric Thompson, director of policy and advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women.

Problems such as overcrowding in rooms are commonplace at the annual CSW, but advocates “had to be smart” to find a way to get around tight security, said Thompson. 

“A lot of the dynamics have been there in my experience before, but it is about power, trampling the patriarchy and institutions, including the U.N., that are very invested in that old way of doing things.”

However, Secretary-General Guterres said that he will appoint someone in his office devoted to civil society access.

Meanwhile, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, an international NGO based in Geneva, sat out the CSW in solidarity with those who were unable to attend because of the President Trump’s travel ban.

The international grassroots group MADRE, while represented at the CSW, saw partners who stayed home or were denied visas from Syria, Iraq and Guatemala — a country not included in either of Trump’s travel bans issued this year. The organization encouraged participants to leave an empty chair in events to highlight those who were unable to attend, said Yifat Susskind, its executive director.

“It is a real blow to civil society engagement and civil society participation … This is a real watershed — the closing of that space — and it matters, because for all of its flaws, the U.N. is the only normative space of global governance that we have,” she said.

They also read statements from those impacted by the travel ban. While people from Iraq are allowed to travel to the U.S. under the revised order, participants — such as Yanar Mohammed, president of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq — were not left with enough time to plan.

“This is not the time to keep us out of the meeting rooms, out of the decision-making spaces and away from our sisters at CSW … We are victims. We are not terrorists,” Mohammed said in a statement.

Progress within the UN

For the first time, a U.N. secretary-general held a civil society town hall at the CSW on women’s rights. The event on March 17, like many others at the forum, was packed, overflowing with people eager to ask Guterres questions on how he plans to handle tough issues that have sullied the U.N.’s reputation. These include a lack of gender parity among U.N. staff and the U.N.’s response to allegations of sexual exploitation and assault committed by peacekeepers and others bearing the U.N. insignia.

Guterres reiterated his commitment to building a leadership team that is equal in its representation of men and women. He also said that he is committed to a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual exploitation and assault that would encompass all staff, not just peacekeepers.

“He said, for the first time, that he supports independent inquiries on this, so that is big,” said Thompson, who posed a question on sexual exploitation at the town hall. “I was satisfied with the response. The devil is always in the details and what is next, but I thought it was great we got him on the record saying he supports independent investigations.”

Guterres also fielded several questions on gender financing, a consistent theme throughout the CSW, which focused on women’s economic empowerment. In light of Trump’s blueprint budget, however, he noted that the U.N. might soon face much larger funding issues than the problem of gender mainstreaming.

At other points during the forum, the focus stayed sharp on the inequality women face in the workforce, earning $0.77 for every dollar a man makes globally. It also extended to the comparative lack of funding UN Women receives, several years after its creation.

“There was this big boo-ha-ha made of creating UN Women and bringing gender to all of the work of the U.N. in a way that is consistent — and then you look at the budget and it has by far the tiniest budget of any institution within the U.N. system. It is almost embarrassing and it is a mockery and a lie to say the U.N. is committed when you look at the numbers across the board,” said Kavita Ramdas, an independent consultant and philanthropic advisor who formerly served as CEO for the Global Fund for Women.

The Trump effect

The news that the U.S. had invited two conservative and highly controversial groups — the Heritage Foundation and the Center for Family and Human Rights, which holds anti-LGBTQ policies — came as a shock to some.

Also controversial was the strong presence of pro-life literature, which Ramdas described as “co-opt[ing] human rights language.”

“I think there’s a sense of having been given a green light by the current [Trump] administration,” she said.

Thompson, a former member of the U.S. CSW delegation last year, noted that groups such as the Heritage Foundation serve a mostly symbolic purpose at the forum and would not have negotiating power over the final outcome document that governments work together to write. The document, which has gone through two public draft versions, is set to be completed today.

She also noted that the U.S. has rotated off the CSW membership roster this year, losing its formal power to vote — although its influence as a U.N. member state remains.

“They keep their foot in the door,” she said. “What I’ve seen at the CSW this year is certainly fraught. It’s like we’re moving one step forward and two steps back.”

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you free every business day.

About the author

Amy%2520headshot
Amy Liebermanamylieberman

Amy Lieberman is a reporter for Devex, based out of New York, where she covers global development around the city and out of the United Nations. She has previously worked as a freelancer, reporting on the environment, social justice issues, immigration and development. Her coverage has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, Slate and The Los Angeles Times, among other outlets. She received her M.A. in politics and government from Columbia Journalism School in 2014.


Join the Discussion