The 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW61) took place at the UN Headquarters in New York from 13 -2 4 March 2017. The meeting took place at a critical juncture in the changing global political landscape and key challenges to gender equality, the women’s empowerment agenda and Civil Society Organisation (CSO) representation were very evident. In effect, CSW 61 was viewed as a litmus test of the strength of international political commitment in the face of gains secured, especially between the 2012 t0 2016 period. It was a key space for Member States to recommit to moving forward on the gender equality and women’s rights agenda (GEWE) contained in the Beijing +20 Political Declaration, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Climate Change Agreement, The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, and the Quito New Urban Agenda. The review of the MDG’s also provided a platform for countries to present their experience and success in implementing and achieving the MDGs for women and girls and how these prepared them for the policy and legislative environments for the gender-responsive implementation of Agenda 2030 and the GEWE more broadly.
Despite CSO networks and organisations boycotting CSW61 due to the visa entry restrictions imposed by the USA government on certain countries, over 4,000 Civil Society Representatives registered to attend the CSW 61 meeting, side events and parallel sessions. For the first time in CSW history, the new Secretary – General Antonio Guterres, held a Town Hall meeting with civil society, moderated by UN Women, which was aimed at discussing the challenges, opportunities and the way forward to ensure gender equality and women’s empowerment.
Unprecedented bad weather and predicted snow falls brought New York to a standstill and the UN was closed for a day which halted proceedings in the first week. Despite this, Agreed Conclusions were adopted at the end of CSW 61.
The priority theme of ‘Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work’ was in itself a pioneering theme, this theme connects women’s economic empowerment to the changing world of work, thus encompassing women’s right to work and rights at work, as well as the commitment to decent work and full and productive employment and constituted a vital area of intergovernmental norm and standard setting. The issue of Care and the Economy was hotly debated as part of this, as governments struggles with concepts and gendered aspects of care. ‘Traditional’ notions of work have been consistently challenged through innovation, technology, globalization and increasing human mobility and informality of work within a global context of unprecedented jobs crises, persistent and widespread poverty, climate change, conflicts, humanitarian migration and refugee crises, financial and economic challenges, economic slowdown and persistent and growing inequality between and within countries.
The Agreed Conclusions of CSW61 were adopted by the Commission after over 3 weeks and more than 100 intense hours of negotiation among delegations, supported by UN Women with Civil Society observing and advocacy interventions. During the final week of CSW61st Civil Society representatives who wait outside the conference rooms of the UN where the negotiations are being held, were evicted from the UN Building. This caused intervention by CSO’s globally through emails and supported by UN Women to regain this critical space for advocacy.
Key challenges remain in the areas of political will and commitment by States to the implementation of the Agreed Conclusions, especially in the area of Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (language from CSW60 was not included in its entirety); addressing structural barriers which contribute to gender pay gaps; access to decent work and the growing incidence of informal and non-standard forms of employment for women; domestic workers; gender stereotypes; gender responsive social protection systems; Unpaid Care and domestic work and multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.
Gaps remain in the area of gender statistics and data and the need to strengthen national statistical capacity was noted. There was no commitment to the mobilization of financial resources from all sources nor a commitment to increase the priority of gender equality in official development assistance.
Of special note is that CSW61 Agreed Conclusions made specific reference to the role of Human Rights Institutions, where they exist, in advancing the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the 2030 Agenda.
An overarching concern remains the shrinking democratic spaces for Civil Society to advocate on Women’s Rights. – The CSW 61 theme brought together Trade Unions, ILO, Women’s Rights and Feminist CSO’s, environmental CSOs, women human rights defenders, girls and youth led spaces which brought about dynamic and innovative advocacy strategies. The removal of CSOs from inside the UN building combined with the negotiations of CSW61 being held in the Trusteeship Council Chamber, where the entrances are off limits to NGO pass holders severely hampered the ability to support the progress of the negotiations from the outside of the negotiation rooms.
Over the last twenty years there have been significant changes in the way CSO’s have done work. Less than fifteen years ago NGOs were able to observe the negotiations and approach delegations on the floors of the UN conference rooms. Over the last 5 years years collaboration has been subjected to increasing restrictions, limiting CSO’s capacity to work with Member States to deliver strong Agreed Conclusions that make a real difference to the policy and legal settings that are used to realise women’s human rights. This remains a key challenge as we move forward. Civil Society Advocates work extremely hard at national, regional and international levels in the lead up, during and following each Commission, it is exhausting and at times disheartening. This shrinking of democratic spaces is happening at all levels and has the potential to severely impede the advancement of gender equality and women’s rights.