CSW66: a mixed moment for women’s rights
The United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women’s (CSW) 66th session was held in March 2022 in a hybrid format, with many government delegations meeting face-to-face but most civil society activity held online. Women’s rights organisations brought to the discussion the perspectives of diverse women on climate change, this year’s priority theme, and on economic empowerment, sexual and reproductive justice and other issues. While they managed to keep at bay increasingly bold and vocal anti-rights groups, hopes of opening up the UN to greater civil society participation were not successful. Until it’s time to meet again for CSW67, they will focus on translating any advances made on paper into change on the ground.
Two years into the pandemic, the prospect of yet another virtual event may not have felt enticing for the thousands of women’s rights activists who each year and in ever-increasing numbers gather around the annual session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).
The most important global forum on women’s rights, the CSW is held each March at the United Nations’ (UN) headquarters in New York. Following the effective cancellation of its 2020 edition just days after the declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic, and a 2021 edition that passed without much fanfare, 2022’s 66th session was again held in what was described as a ‘hybrid’ format – a somewhat deceptive word that meant government delegations could meet face-to-face but the bulk of the world’s civil society would have to participate online.
But given the urgency of the issues being discussed in this forum, civil society had to put their doubts about the quality of access to one side. Passing up the opportunity was not a luxury they could afford. And they knew the drill, so they tried to make the most out of what might turn out to be an opportunity to democratise access.
Following two weeks of frenetic activity, 25 March saw CSW’s last formal meeting to adopt the session’s Agreed Conclusions, the formal outcome document of CSW sessions that makes recommendations for governments, intergovernmental bodies, civil society and other key stakeholders.
But even as the complacent applause of the closing event echoed in cyberspace, civil society had already moved on. In the momentary calm between the feverish session and the challenging task of monitoring the implementation of commitments, they took stock of the experience to draw lessons for the job ahead. Their conclusions were ambivalent.
At the intersection between gender and climate
Although it’s almost as old as the UN itself, it was in the mid-1990s that CSW became a centrepiece of the global women’s rights architecture, when it developed into the key forum for assessing progress and gaps in the implementation of the landmark 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.
CSW’s 2022 priority theme, ‘achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls in the context of climate change, environmental and disaster risk reduction policies and programmes’, represented a historic opportunity: for the first time CSW was standing at the intersection between women’s rights and climate change, environmental degradation and crisis and disaster.
This theme attracted a host of civil society organisations (CSOs) working on climate change, which were not necessarily part of the typical CSW crowd. It had the potential to give renewed visibility to those working to highlight the impacts of climate change on women and girls and devise women-led solutions.
What we really wanted to see highlighted at CSW66 was the acknowledgment of the root causes and consequences of climate change on women and their effects leading to widening inequalities and increasing violations of women’s human rights.
A very critical point we wanted to see addressed was loss and damage associated with impacts of climate change and delays in mitigation efforts. It would have been good if CSW66 had supported a financial mechanism to address loss and damage due to the climate crisis as well as an accountability mechanism to hold accountable those responsible for causing the climate crisis, particularly large fossil fuel companies. We need to address the root causes of climate change for our societies to achieve sustainability.
Another issue we wanted to highlight at CSW66 was the ongoing attacks against women human rights and environmental defenders in Asia and the Pacific in the context of the climate crisis. They are at the frontline of climate crisis, working day in and day out to raise awareness about and resist the catastrophic impacts of extractive industries and fossil fuel burning, and they must be protected.
CSW66’s review theme – the theme emerging from the Agreed Conclusions of its previous session – was ‘women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work’. This pointed to pressing issues following two years of a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted on women – pushing them out of the labour market by the millions, subjecting them to increasingly worse conditions of work and exploitation, and worsening an already uneven distribution of care work within families. The need for a space to advocate for women’s social and economic rights and pandemic recovery programmes that prioritise these had never been greater.
Civil society pointed out that, at the current rate of progress, it will take centuries for women to achieve economic equality. It advocated for states to support women’s economic empowerment and challenge the gender stereotypes and rigid gender roles that hold women back.
We wanted to use CSW66 to recognise how gender stereotypes undermine women’s rights and embed strong calls for action in the session’s Agreed Conclusions.
Gender stereotypes undermine women’s economic rights in multiple ways: they affect their aspirations, sources of support, opportunities, perceptions and access to resources such as finance and markets, and impact on the wider entrepreneurial ecosystem.
We also raised concerns about the challenges women face around entrepreneurship in the context of the pandemic. For women entrepreneurs, the pandemic has meant further reduced incomes, temporary and permanent business closures, dismissal of employees, missed business opportunities and reduced access to often already limited finance and capital.
Women-owned firms face additional barriers to accessing government support, and are more likely to close, with many citing difficulties with managing additional unpaid care work. Women-owned enterprises are overrepresented in sectors most vulnerable to the detrimental impacts of COVID-19 – such as retail, hospitality, tourism, services and the textile industry.
We also highlighted the unpaid care work that disproportionately affects women. Before the pandemic, women already spent about three times as many hours on unpaid domestic work and care work as men. The pandemic has increased the unpaid workloads – both for women and men – but it is women who are still doing the lion’s share.
Sexual and reproductive justice
Age-old battles around sexual and reproductive rights inevitably continued to be acted out at CSW66. Feminist and LGBTQI+ groups reaffirmed women’s right to make decisions over their bodies and lives. They sought to shield abortion rights at a time when a violent backlash threatens to set the clock back decades and framed access to abortion as a matter of both public health and basic social justice. And they continued to demand the recognition and inclusion of women ‘in all their diversity’, an expression that was at the centre of deep controversy when it came to finalising CSW66’s Agreed Conclusions.
Activists highlighted that the gender-based violence and discrimination queer and trans women and gender non-conforming people experience daily was reinforced by exclusion at CSW, as a result of a narrow and bigoted understanding of the very concept of ‘women’. They pushed instead for an intersectional, multifaceted definition of women ‘in all their diversity’.
But those resisting the call for gender justice were also vocal as CSW increasingly turned into a battleground of the broader culture war. Although virtual meetings denied anti-rights groups their familiar tactics of intimidation and crowding out events, they remained highly active online, pushing petitions to convey to state delegates the message that ‘abortion is not the solution to climate change’, claiming that climate change was being used as an ‘excuse’ to push for so-called ‘gender ideology’, and decrying the alleged exclusion of so-called ‘pro-life’ CSOs from CSW.
UN Secretary General António Guterres – a self-declared feminist – offered a veiled acknowledgement of these confrontations in his opening remarks. Without explicitly mentioning sexual and reproductive rights, he declared that tackling gender injustice requires ‘a united front, protecting hard-won gains on women’s rights while investing in lifelong learning, healthcare, decent jobs and social protection for women and girls’. He warned that ‘we are seeing a pushback on women’s rights’ and concluded: ‘we must push back on the pushback’.
The elephant in the room: decision-making power
Through the ages, women have known the indignity of being subjected to rules they’ve had no role making. They’ve had to put up with countless men in positions of authority legislating over female bodies. Women’s rights organisations all over the world have experienced the frustration of unsuccessfully calling for their countries’ legislative bodies – generally overwhelmingly made up of men – to pass laws that benefit women. They know that women’s exclusion from decision making only perpetuates the gender stereotypes that have kept them away from power in the first place. They are acutely aware that fairer political representation is a key that opens all kinds of doors. It was no surprise to see civil society repeatedly bring up issues of representation in CSW66, as in previous sessions.
The exclusion of women in policy formulation and decision-making processes perpetuates gender injustices and rights violations. We need to shift power relations so that every person can exercise their inherent power with dignity. Most women do not have the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights and access political leadership because they are systematically undermined.
On the surface, you see women in high-profile positions in every area of society in Trinidad and Tobago. However, when you scratch beneath the surface, you realise these women are not the real decision makers.
Women do not get the required support to run for political office. They may be selected as candidates, but the road to success is often steep and filled with deterrents. Women candidates are often asked to run in districts their parties find particularly difficult to win, so they are almost guaranteed to lose. Women are running but not necessarily winning. To win, they would need financial and coordination support.
On top of this, many of these women are often mothers, wives, care givers, so they have additional duties that nobody is helping them with either. They are playing all these roles simultaneously and expected to be successful at all of them.
Women need more access to political decision-making power. It is not just about being in the room, but at the table, contributing, being listened to and having their ideas examined, pushed forward and implemented.
It is not enough to have a woman on the ballot. It is also not enough to elect a woman without providing an enabling environment which values her unique perspective on issues.
Underrepresentation and its effects are replicated in all decision-making spaces, at every level, including the UN. Even at CSW, where given its subject matter women are more present than anywhere else, those who are most affected by the issues it is supposed to be dealing with continue to be severely underrepresented.
Given that the climate crisis is impacting most severely on women in the global south, and particularly Black, Indigenous, rural and migrant women, women and girls living with disabilities and LGBTQI+ people, their voices should have been listened to at CSW66. While they had a platform to express their concerns at CSW, it would be hard to argue that their views were given proper consideration, or that they informed the session’s conclusions and recommendations.
Many plans have been put in place to ensure women are in decision-making positions. These are always good in theory, but their implementation does not necessarily go accordingly. This could be due to lack of commitment and accountability from international bodies. Hopefully as time progresses, we will see real change. But for the time being we believe the UN system needs reforming.
The rhetoric of commitment to women’s political leadership and integrating women in decision making is there. But only four women have been elected as president of the UN General Assembly in its 76-year history. Also, the UN has never had a woman Secretary-General. So there is more work to do to ensure women’s equal share and representation in decision-making processes at all levels. We also must make sure that the voice and agency of the most vulnerable women and girls is shaping the decisions of these international platforms. We have seen a rollback in advances in women’s rights in many areas, and thus feminist leadership and women’s political participation in UN processes are so critical.
Expectations and access
Having discouraged civil society from traveling to New York for weeks on end, just three days before CSW66 began the UN announced that civil society would again be allowed inside UN headquarters. By then it was too late for most people to make their way to New York. Civil society warned that the exclusion of their voices would make this CSW less progressive than it could have been.
A limited number of CSOs were included in public sessions; most CSO engagement took the form of participation in online side events and parallel events organised by civil society or supportive UN member states. They shared their advocacy calls with permanent missions at the UN by email and social media.
Most from civil society participated virtually, trying to make the most out of the potential of online events, which at least eliminate some of the usual barriers – getting visas, traveling long distances at great cost, getting accreditation to access UN headquarters. They noted, however, that access challenges faced by women in real life were replicated online, and that virtual participation entails its own challenges. Many faced internet issues and difficulties due to time zone differences and language barriers, on top of disorganisation resulting in late notices, last-minute changes and confusing instructions. Civil society was simply excluded from some spaces, while some sessions filled up quickly with limited numbers of participants allowed. A hybrid format risked offering the worst of both worlds and didn’t provide a level playing field.
Relatively few organisations participated in person, often at great cost. Malawi’s Green Girls Platform, for instance, was able to send only one person for three days due to limited funding. This is problematic because advocacy is a long-term effort, and to see results grassroots CSOs should be able to participate fully throughout, and not in the odd CSW or climate conference, but in successive iterations of these global meetings.
We made a political decision to attend CSW66 in person, even though we were concerned about COVID-19 restrictions and there were lots of uncertainties regarding CSO participation in CSW66. The decision came from the fact that we, women from the global south, have lost significant opportunities and access to influence multilateral processes during the COVID-19 crisis.
Our experience is that CSW66 was not well organised, especially from the perspective of CSOs from the global south. It was all very uncertain and CSOs were not provided with enough information, while UN Women continuously advised us against travelling to New York. We were given access to the UN building only two or three days before CSW66 started. Only through an informal announcement we got to know that special event tickets would be distributed to two representatives per organisation with accreditation to the UN Economic and Social Committee to access the conference room to observe. If the announcement had been made officially by the UN in time, it could have reached a larger audience of CSOs that had the right to be there.
We were also disappointed to see that CSOs continued to be excluded from the negotiation room. Civil society in the global south faces many structural restrictions on participation, including time constraints and language barriers. We really wanted to see CSW66 facilitate women’s meaningful and democratic participation, particularly because this year saw the negotiation of a Methods of Work resolution. However, this was yet another failure. To us, it was a further indication of how disconnected from women’s realities global-level policy making is.
It is important to support partners from low and middle-income countries to attend and join these platforms – and provide sustained financial support to multi-year advocacy work in general. Changes in policies and practices rarely happen in a 12-month cycle or if you attend a global platform like CSW only once – advocacy takes time and a long-term commitment. It is only possible with funding to support a longer-term agenda.
Despite the barriers, expectations were mostly met around being able to raise issues, have meaningful discussions, connect, collaborate with and learn from other activists and organisations from around the world and join forces to speak with a shared voice. Civil society hosted and participated in an array of events that showcased the first-hand experiences and demands of groups from adolescents and young women to female workers and Indigenous environmental human rights defenders.
Our expectations were to be able to connect, collaborate with and learn from women’s rights organisations and activists from around the world, joining together in a unified call for climate justice.
We re-echoed the achievements and contributions of our women, reviewed the reality and impacts of climate change on women and called for a more level playing field and gender-responsive climate change mitigation and adaptation for a sustainable future for all.
We wished to work and collaborate with other CSOs with the aim of bringing women’s issues to the forefront and promoting women’s empowerment. In our opinion, we were successful in that regard. We also wanted to reach out to UN member states, and to some extent we were successful in that regard as well.
Our expectations were that our concerns would be listened to and we would collectively come up with solutions to some of the overarching challenges. Although our needs were met to a good degree, we were not highly impressed by the output. But we are positive that things will improve.
The session’s conclusions: a missed opportunity
But when it came expectations of winning ambitious policy pronouncements translatable into change on the ground, it was a different story. As usual, CSOs weren’t allowed into the formal negotiations of the Agreed Conclusions.
Although negotiation spaces are closed to civil society, there are various ways in which CSOs and activists normally try to influence the outcomes. Many CSOs start preparing for CSW at about the same time as their governments, as much as a year in advance. They prepare briefs and factsheets and send these to the UN Women Expert Group and office of the UN Secretary-General, in the hope that they will be added to the evidence base used to prepare the reports that guide states in their negotiations. They cultivate relationships with some delegations and form CSO coalitions to gain collective access to zero drafts and subsequent versions, learn about the content and tone of ongoing negotiations, alert over red lines and provide input and wording suggestions.
But this time around, negotiations leading to the session’s Agreed Conclusions took place face-to-face in New York, while most CSOs were online. This deprived civil society of a key point of entry: personal connections with like-minded state delegates.
The resulting Agreed Conclusions were predictably hailed as ‘ground-breaking’ and ‘historic’, due to them being the first to recognise the connections between climate change and gender inequality. But civil society expressed disappointment at the document’s limited ambition and gross omissions, as well as its inclination to let both government and private sector polluters off the hook.
Feminist CSOs could claim some victories, but the anti-rights camp also got its share.
The outcome text is clear about the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation on women and girls and references the ‘multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and marginalization’, but falls short of recognising women ‘in all their diversity’. It stresses the need to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services but also recognises ‘the importance of implementing family-friendly and family-oriented policies’, legitimising anti-rights discourse about the integrity of the family – traditionally defined as made up of a man and a woman – which enables attacks on the rights of women and LGBTQI+ people.
The term ‘women environmental human rights defenders’ didn’t make it into the text, but a reference was included to those women human rights defenders ‘working on issues related to the environment, land and natural resources as well as the rights of indigenous peoples’.
The conclusions also underscore the principle of free, prior and informed consent as essential for addressing the overlapping layers of discrimination faced by Indigenous women and girls. They contain strong language on eliminating, preventing and responding to all forms of violence against all women and girls, both online and offline, commit to bridging the gender digital divide and recognise the contributions and need for protection of female journalists and media workers.
But climate-related commitments are weak across the board, to the point that environmental CSOs see them as a mere add-on to the usual Agreed Conclusions. According to WECF International, a global network on women and sustainable development, they denote the lack of ‘any sense of urgency’.
The document avoids dealing with the funding of climate transition and overlooks the role of fiscal policy as a key mechanism to achieve gender equality in the context of climate, environmental and disaster risk reduction. It doesn’t mention the need to remove subsidies to fossil fuel industries. Indeed, consistent with years of denial in UN climate discussions, it doesn’t once mention the industry chiefly responsible for the crisis. It more broadly avoids calling the private sector to account.
It also provides an easy way out for states: the expressions ‘as appropriate’ and ‘where appropriate’ are used 10 times in the 20-page text, allowing states to claim they are not in a position to comply with a variety of recommendations. It enables yet more delay, even though as the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently made clear, the time to act on climate change is almost up.
We expected CSW to meet the dual missions of advancing global commitments to address climate change and advancing women’s human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment.
Unfortunately, CSW66 failed us on both counts. It did not look into the deeper causes of the climate crisis and the extent of its impacts on women’s human rights and gender equality. Mostly what it did was just add wording on climate change, environmental degradation and disasters at the end of the existing text of CSW66 conclusions. It failed to address the structural causes of the crisis, so the conclusions and recommendations are not designed to address and rectify those structural issues.
We need to pay attention to, for instance, how CSW66 Agreed Conclusions effectively let governments off the hook from their human rights obligation to regulate the private sector. Instead, they seek to strengthen the roles and responsibilities of the private sector and just encourage them to conduct human rights and environmental due diligence, where appropriate.
Another practical example is the net-zero goal included in the text. Most states are welcoming this goal that seeks to balance the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere. In doing so, they are placing the responsibility of determining the future in the hands of those that are causing climate change.
If CSW66 were serious about addressing climate impacts and really thought this is a climate emergency, it would not go for a net-zero goal, which is buying time for those exploiting fossil fuels and polluting the planet to continue their business as usual, and would instead focus on the just and equitable transition to decentralised and renewable energy systems.
Pushback against participation: another wasted opportunity
Participants from the global south acknowledged the presence of the elephant in the room as they pointed out that UN arrangements for civil society participation are ‘pretty bad’ from a global south perspective, and that some ‘solutions’ advanced – such as encouraging states to include civil society in their delegations – are tone deaf, given that many states are in the hands of authoritarian and misogynistic governments that are closing down civic space and taking away women’s rights.
The UN should involve civil society more – and not just lawyers or PhD holders. Learning does not only occur in the classroom. Application takes place on the ground in communities often led by community organisers or members of organisations.
CSOs are not adequately involved in the decision-making process. We highlighted a need to involve grassroots organisations in policy formulation stages, because they are the ones that truly know what people’s needs are. We wanted to bring to attention the fact that many CSOs are restricted by their national governments and cannot carry out their work effectively. Governments and international bodies must support them and integrate them in policy-making processes.
With its Methods of Work also on the agenda, CSW’s latest session offered an opportunity to fix this by deepening civil society engagement with the process. But conservative pushback prevented any changes being made to allow civil society participation in the negotiation of outcome documents. CSOs were not even given observer status. For the foreseeable future, civil society at CSW will continue to be allowed only in side events, interactive dialogues – with the addition of a new one with young people a positive development – and the so-called general discussion, dedicated to reviewing the status of gender equality and identifying goals attained, gaps and challenges in commitment implementation.
Fortunately something is clear to civil society: CSW’s Agreed Conclusions don’t represent a ceiling but a minimum threshold, and there is a long process beyond them. They are meant for everyone to take back home and push to be translated as much as possible into progressive legislation, programmes and policies that lead to actual change on the ground. This is what feminist civil society will keep doing, with the aim of seeing progress before it’s time to meet again for CSW67.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The UN must institutionalise effective opportunities for civil society to bring in the perspectives of those most affected by problems, including the climate crisis, and develop ground-up solutions to them.
Governments must involve women-led organisations and integrate their practical knowledge on the ground to design effective policies to tackle gender inequalities at the intersection between gender and climate.
Feminist organisations must deepen their intersectional approach to respond to the needs of diverse women, while also building broad civil society coalitions to resist the anti-rights backlash.
With thanks to all the interviewees whose inputs informed this piece: Eucharia Abua, African Girls Empowerment Network; Zarin Hainsworth, National Alliance of Women’s Organisations, UK; Terry Ince, CEDAW Committee of Trinidad and Tobago; Helen McEachern, Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, UK; Joy Hayley Munthali and Dorothy Kazombo Mwale, Green Girls Platform, Malawi; Wanun Permpibul, Climate Watch Thailand; and Misun Woo, Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development. All interview quotations are edited extracts. Full interviews are available here.
Cover photo by WECF international/Twitter