Report on the Commission on the Status of Women 2017

At the CSW event dedicated to the conversation on the #NoBordersOnGenderJustice Initiative. Credit: Alexandra Rojas/WILPF.

By Robin Lloyd, Burlington Branch and co-chair of DISARM/EndWar

The annual gathering of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the UN in New York City involves more global citizens in UN processes than any other UN event. Women care about the UN. Those of us who took part in the Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women (1995) remember the excitement when we met our sisters eye to eye and committed ourselves to global solidarity. We’re not going to let go.

However, this year, for the first time, attendance suffered a decline. Why? The Trump immigration ban denied visas to women from the Middle East, precisely the women whose voices we need to hear. WILPF International, which had planned several panel discussions featuring women from Syria and Yemen, sharply criticized this decision and withdrew from this year’s CSW. WILPF warned that “the absence of women from countries affected by the recent US travel ban undermines the basic premise of the CSW as being an inclusive and participatory process and threatens its legitimacy.” Although most other women’s groups, including WILPF US, did not withdraw, they expressed solidarity by including an empty chair in their panels with a sign, “Why is this chair empty? #NoBordersOnGenderJustice.”

US WILPF’s special program for college students—the Practicum in Advocacy—was smaller than usual, with seven students. Blanca Gerard of the Essex County, NJ Branch was the sole participant in the Local2Global program for WILPF members who are active in their branches or at large. Nancy Price and Barbara Nielsen participated as members of the overall oversight committee of the program. Maureen Eke, professor and WILPF US board member, and Lamia Sadek, former managing director of WILPF US were to lead a “parallel event” at the Church Center across from the UN––with the title “Empowering Indigenous Women and Young Girls: Ending Economic Exploitation”––but it was scheduled for Tuesday, March 14, the day of the big blizzard. Everything was canceled, and, unfortunately, this workshop was not rescheduled.

The following comments reflect my experiences and opinions as an emeritus Local2Global participant.

The focus of this year’s CSW was Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work. Representatives of 162 member states met for two weeks to create a 17-page document designed to advance women’s rights globally. They do this every year. Meanwhile, over 3,900 representatives from 580 civil society organizations met concurrently across the street and shared what was going on in their countries and strategized on how they might influence the outcome document.

“The Guardian” newspaper called the CSW negotiations “a display of geo-politics and a battleground to preserve decades-old agreements on promoting gender equality.” Indeed, the inside/outside relationship is complex and gets more difficult every year. How does one try to “lobby” our United States UN representative (Nikki Haley), when everyone knows her positions are determined by Washington? And what impact will these 17 pages of seemingly progressive statements for women’s equality have on women on the streets and in the sweatshops and brothels around the world? The 45 different points begin “the Commission reaffirms,” “the Commission recognizes,” or “the Commission calls for.” The Commission never says “demands,” “insists,” or “orders." An advance, unedited version of the Agreed Conclusions is now available.

A wise woman—and there are many who stride the hallways and take part in the NGO sessions at the Church Center—suggested a way to look at the final document. Her name is Marta Benevides. She is a progressive activist and former WILPF member from El Salvador. In conversation, she said to me: “These documents [including the Millennium Development Goals 2000-2015 and the Sustainable Development goals 2015-2030] should be looked at as a modern-day version of the Sermon on the Mount: moral teachings on peace and gender justice that should be seen as the agreed values of the world community to be used by groups and individuals when they are faced with injustice or indifference on the part of their government.” With righteous indignation, activists can argue “You consented on this document; you must follow its dictates!”

Thus, it depends on the nongovernmental activists, waiting to take the final document back to their countries, to hold their governments accountable.

Some of the panel discussions I listened to explained service projects they performed in their countries. Others supported business interests and explained how women can become entrepreneurs in Africa. One lively debate was titled “A Strategy Session to Confront the Global Surge to the Right.” Yifat Susskind of MADRE: Demanding Rights, Resources, and Results for Women Worldwide, asked: “What is the historical movement we are moving through now? Who is most in danger now? We’re differently positioned in this crisis. We must take this difference and build a resilient movement to encounter the ascendant populist and authoritarian upsurge of the moment.” Hakima Abbas of the Association of Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) added: “So many forms of oppression have been normalized, such as inequality: the obeisance and homage the media encourages us to give to billionaires and celebrities.”

Kavita Ramdas, who directs the Global Fund for Women, the largest foundation in the world supporting women’s human rights, pointed out that eight men control the same wealth as 50 percent of the global population. “Everything is so exploitive of the earth,” she cried. “All relationships are now transactional. This system is not sustainable.”

Another woman who heads Women Moving Millions—now a black-led philanthropy—stated that, from her perspective, the worldwide threat to women is the threat to reproductive rights. Now, she said, they are pushing against contraception. A woman from Poland spoke up and described the women-led demonstrations in the streets of over 60 cities protesting the criminalization of abortion. “Women’s power has been awakened. How do we maintain it? How will we not get tired?”

At another workshop,Corporate Power and Women's Economic Empowerment,” a critique was made of the increased encouragement within the UN of public-private partnerships, when the risk is always put on the public sector. Unions have decreasing power vis-à-vis corporations, but they do have labor rights. After the Bangladesh labor catastrophe, unions gained some money and rights. But the workers still receive only $68 a month!!

A woman from the Solidarity Center, which supports global union movements through the AFL-CIO, remarked that trade unions are battling corporations on a daily basis. But there are many restrictions on strikes. Unions are afraid of being sued if they go on strike to support another union. “But if we don’t fight, how are we going to win? We support a GLOBAL STRIKE!!”

These were some of the comments coming out of the more radical workshops that I attended. We have to disrupt their consensus. The governments are not working for the people. We must be daring enough to invent the future.


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