US 'regressive' stance at CSW dominates UN's largest meeting on women

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres holds town hall meeting in connection with the 62nd session of the Commission on the Status of Women. Photo by: Mark Garten / U.N.

UNITED NATIONS — United Nations member states wrapped the annual Commission on the Status of Women meeting last week with a set of conclusions that fell short of the agreement many civil society advocates were hoping would include strong language on human rights and sexual and reproductive health.

The negotiations around the document — a tool civil society policy experts and activists bring back home to lobby for the rights of women and girls — drew late into Friday, the final day of the two-week event. For the second year in a row, the United States delegation was cast as one of the most aggressive — and regressive — players at the table.

The final outcome agreement was finalized on Friday, but the document has not yet been shared publicly. It should closely resemble a late draft shared Friday afternoon.

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

The Commission on the Status of Women wrapped up its 61st session at the U.N. on March 24. Devex's U.N. correspondent walks through some of the key takeaways  and the controversies that dominated the forum.

The 19-page agreement recognizes that all rural women and girls “face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination,” as well as their critical role in eradicating poverty through sustainable agriculture and development work. It expresses concern over their lack of key health care services and food security, and calls for development programs, national policies, and official development assistance to be delivered with a focus on gender equality. While there is a call to ensure “universal access” to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, abortion is not mentioned.

Overall, the forum concluded with “strong and concrete commitments” to address the lives of women and girls in rural areas, the International Women’s Health Coalition said in a media release. Recognizing child, early, and forced marriage as a barrier to education and pledges to empower girls and women were among the positive steps.

But the U.S. also took more extreme stances than they did last year, said Shannon Kowalski, the director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition.

The U.S. team included Bethany Kozma, a senior adviser for gender equality and women’s empowerment at the U.S. Agency for International Development, known for opposing the rights of transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity. Also represented was Valerie Huber, who at the Department of Health and Human Services has pushed for family planning support that does not include mention of women’s access to contraceptives.

“There’s been a lot of pushback by the U.S. on sexual, reproductive health and rights,” explained Kowalski, speaking as the negotiations entered into a final phase. “The U.S. government has put ideologues in charge of negotiating on its behalf and are trying to eliminate references to sexual rights and reproductive health, and to focus only on maternal health.”

The U.S. and the Vatican have made efforts to eliminate references to contraceptives and abortion, and to emphasize natural family planning, according to Kowalski. They have moved to the right of conservative approaches adopted by Russia and the Arab and African member state blocs. There have also been questions around unsafe abortion, which is responsible for 5 to 13 percent of the maternal mortality cases worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

“It [the U.S. hardline approach] is definitely much more pronounced this year than last year. Last year they were still engaging constructively in the negotiations and were trying to not be obstructive, because the administration was still so new,” Kowalski continued. “This year they are being very aggressive and very regressive. It is having an impact on the negotiations, as they are the most extreme voice in the room and holding back progress on things where other countries really agree.”

“If we are not going to move forward, this is a waste of our time as feminists … It is not worth my time and energy to come here and do this if we are left with less than nothing.”

— Sanam Amin, program officer with the Asia Pacific Forum on Women

There was also a hard push by the U.S. to water down language on human rights, climate change, and the Paris Agreement on climate change. The U.S. is the only country that is opposed to the 2016 global deal. Both the Paris Agreement and climate change are referenced in the document, which acknowledges the disproportionate impact climate change and other environmental issues have on girls and women in rural areas.

Despite an increasingly “polarized” space, some delegations from Brazil, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Argentina have stood as “powerful rights champions,” noted New York University global affairs professor and former UN Women adviser Anne Marie Goetz.

Controversy over routinely accepted language — like comprehensive sexual education — has pushed some attendees like Sanam Amin to reconsider attending the largest global gathering on women and girls’ rights. Amin is a program officer with the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, a regional network made up of 400 organizations, operating in 26 countries.

China, Egypt, and Iran also protested language her group proposed, which pushed for the Commission to express “concern about systemic and structural discrimination and increasing violence and threats faced by women human rights defenders of all ages in rural and remote areas,” including those working on labor rights, land, and natural resources and in the media. It also called for “robust and practical” steps to protect women human rights defenders, and to prevent violence and abuse of these women.”

Instead, a final version of the document calls for the support of “the important role of civil society actors in promoting and protecting human fundamental freedoms of rural women; take steps to protect them, including women human rights defenders.”

Regressive suggestions throughout the negotiation process make it difficult to see the agreement as a real victory, Amin said.  

“What is disappointing is that the outcome document does not show any evidence of anything new or progress moving forward,” Amin said.

“As a caucus we have been dissatisfied. If we are not going to move forward, this is a waste of our time as feminists. I have already had some conversations with UN Women and other groups that something has to change, because as I said, it is not worth my time and energy to come here and do this if we are left with less than nothing.”

This year’s CSW meeting centered on the progresses and challenges facing women and girls in rural areas. It is the same topic focus as the CSW in 2012, but member states then did not reach any final agreements on the issue.

The world is becoming increasingly urbanized, with more than 70 percent of the global population set to live in cities by 2050, according to the U.N. Development Programme. But 3 billion people still live in rural areas in developing countries. A remote location for women and girls means their daily struggles are exacerbated, as they may face lack of accessible health care, increased vulnerability to climate change, and no legal ownership over their lands.

The stakes were relatively high for CSW attendees like Wekoweu Tsuha, who works at the women’s rights organization North East Network in the northeast India state of Nagaland. Domestic and gender-based violence is prevalent across the state’s 16 indigenous tribal communities, but incidents are rarely reported, she explained to Devex. Filed reports will often appear before village councils, which typically do not have female representation.

“So far, what I have been hearing very much resonates with the kinds of issues women in our area face, especially the rural women,” Tusha said. “I’m very hopeful that this will recognize the different issues, the challenges rural women face in different contexts.”

The question of U.N. access for rural women and girls and other civil society members was also voiced repeatedly throughout the conference. Similar to last year’s CSW, the U.S. travel ban on travelers from six majority-Muslim countries — Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen — barred U.S. entry to some delegates, said Lyric Thompson and Spogmay Ahmed, of the Washington, D.C.-based International Center for Research on Women. 

Six women with the Asia Pacific Forum on Women were denied visas this year, Amin says.

At U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’ town hall with civil society, one delegate from the World YWCA asked about visa restrictions, and moving the CSW outside of New York. The call received a “muted response.”

“Inclusion, or lack thereof, has been a recurring theme at CSW as delegates denied visas are unable to participate in the negotiations. The attendance and meaningful participation of women and girls from rural areas should have been a priority for the U.N., but it remains beholden to the U.S. immigration policies,” Thompson and Ahmed wrote in an email to Devex.

At the town hall meeting, Guterres laid out three priority areas: Gender parity, sexual harassment within the U.N., and sexual exploitation and abuse. There was also discussion about inclusivity of transgender, queer, and other people who do not fall into the traditional ideas of what it means to be a woman.

Update, March 29, 2018: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the U.S. signed onto the Paris climate agreement in 2016, but announced in 2017 that it would withdraw.

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    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York 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.