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csw58: negotiating an outcome document

Madeleine Brecher, a member of the ICJW New York UN NGO Team and NGO CSW reports on the success of the recently-concluded CSW58 at the United Nations.  

Sharon Gustafson, ICJW President, says: "Fighting for equality for women in all aspects of our lives, religious as well as secular, is indeed hard work.  But with tenacity and determination we are slowly moving forward.  Kudos to our New York Team who worked so hard on the CSW conference and to all non-ICJW partners who combined efforts to present an outstanding conference."

After months and months of CSW58 planning, meetings, briefings, advocating and negotiating, the UN Commission on the Status of Women (the Bureau) successfully produced an outcome document with Agreed Conclusions at the zero hour. It was a veritable roller coaster ride during the two weeks of deliberations but the Bureau, UN Women, NGOs and all stakeholders welcomed the announcement and left exhausted but in a joyous mood.

The priority theme was Challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for women and girls. During the two week period, there were, of course, the usual high-level meetings, relevant events by member states and a host of superb parallel events organized by NGOs under the auspices of the NGO CSW Forum. And let me brag here about the two excellent and well-attended panels and interactive dialogues that ICJW sponsored + a Human Rights Watch session where we were among a number of cosponsors. (See the Convention Report for descriptions.) However, the highlight that I wish to share with you this year was the road taken by CSOs (civil society organizations) as they studied, advocated and worked to influence members of the CSW Bureau to negotiate a transformational outcome document with forward-thinking Agreed Conclusions. Why transformational? The MDGs conclude in 2015 and there are currently discussions taking place around the Post 2015 development agenda; it is essential that these new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) acknowledge the realities of women and girl’s lives today and not be mired in geopolitics or rhetoric of twenty years ago.

The Chair of this year’s Commission on the Status of Women was Ambassador Libran Cabactulan from the Philippines.  He held a briefing with civil society the week before the start of CSW58 where he assured us of his strong support for a powerful outcome document at the end of the session. He promised that one member of the Bureau would in attendance at all NGO morning briefings, AND he would see to it that we received a daily markup of the outcome document that was being negotiated. The rallying cry at the UN in New York has always been the importance of civil society input yet we’ve been excluded from halls of power more times than we wish to remember. Therefore, civil society was ecstatic that we had a sincere, proactive friend in the Chair. And he was true to his every word.

The first week seemed to be going well. Civil society had daily meetings with members of the Bureau, UN Women, many Member State delegations + NGOs who sat on government CSW delegations.  The Regional NGO caucuses met often to share and to strategize on their focused advocacy issues. The word around Headquarters was that the members of the Bureau were civil to one another and hopeful. By the beginning of the second week, at a closed meeting I attended with UN Women and civil society negotiators on government delegation, the tone was very different.

I was reminded of Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece “Things Fall Apart”. What was believed to be an extraordinary opportunity for governments to move past the MDGs to new UN development goals calling for equality, empowerment and human rights for women and girls began to look very bleak indeed. Things actually seemed to fall apart. The Holy See and their conservative, regressive government partners dug their heels into the past recommending anti-women and anti-human rights language and seemed likely to block the chance for producing new, forward thinking Agreed Conclusions.

One of the sticking points was how to balance human rights with development issues. Most in the room seemed willing to balance the two but the definition of balance was not the same in each region. Other contentious issues were, as in the past, sexual and reproductive health, reproductive rights, the definition of family (traditional or single parent, same-sex parents, etc.), SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity), national sovereignty, pushback on language created in the Beijing Platform for Action and even, believe it or not, pushback on the CSW 57 Agreed Conclusions  negotiated just last year. It was now Tuesday evening and the document had to be whittled down to fewer pages with solutions to all those controversial issues.

Fast forward to Friday morning’s NGO CSW briefing with CSW Chair Ambassador Cabactulan and UN Women. The Bureau had broken into working committees to find solutions to each troubling paragraph. All were up until 4 o’clock in the morning on Thursday and were currently resting. Negotiations were to resume at 11AM. Besides the contentious issues listed above, the Chair added that language was still needed on early marriage, traditional practices,  climate change, foreign occupation, unilateral sanctions and a host of other matters

UN Women’s Chief of Civil Society Relations, who played an invaluable role updating NGOs during the months preceding and the two weeks of CSW58 itself, described the involvement that UN Women played in the room during negotiations as a resource to the Bureau. They were always passionate spokespeople for a stand-alone goal for women and girls in the Post 2015 SDGs and were there reminding the Bureau of the severe shortcomings in the MDGs for the advancement of gender equality and women’s empowerment. UN Women had the highest praise for the substantive contributions of civil society organizations (CSOs) to the Bureau. While they were not allowed in the negotiating room, NGO representatives camped out outside bringing food and drink to all inside who needed it and acted as resource for those inside the room or at smaller caucus meetings. She closed by predicting that we would indeed have good Agreed Conclusions. There was a huge sigh of relief as we exited the briefing.

I awoke early Saturday morning to check on the CSW58 outcome. The 24-page final document was approved by consensus early Saturday by the 45-member Commission on the Status of Women. They acknowledged that “the feminization of poverty persists” and highlighted the continuing pandemic of violence against women and girls. They addressed the structural inequalities that persist in gender pay gaps, women’s disproportionate share of unpaid care work, and of course the very discriminatory attitudes, norms and legal frameworks which impede progress. There is an urgent need to ensure women’s access to quality education, ownership of land and other assets, sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, and special measures are required to insure women’s participation in decision-making. The Bureau also called for an end to early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

Egyptian minister, women’s rights activist and head of the country’s delegation Mervat Tallawy said, to thunderous applause, “We will never give in to the prevailing web of conservatism against women in all regions of the world. We shall not allow fundamentalists and extreme groups to disarm women from their rights.”

Conservative countries did succeed in blocking any reference to different forms of family or to problems women and girls face because of the sexual orientation or gender identity.

The director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition said, “We have achieved what we came to do against great odds and the determined attempts by the Holy See and a few conservative countries to once again turn back the clock on women’s rights.” Let us all hope that the 58th Commission on the Status of Women has created the impetus to making equality between women and men a reality.