UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is set to be the biggest conference yet solely dedicated to women’s issues. With 900 participants it has set itself as both a celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which is celebrated as a pivotal moment in the progression of women’s rights but also a point of rejuvenation as the process of ensuring gender equality moves forward. Yet, the fault-lines and alliances that have appeared in the run-up to the Conference as well as the potential of push-back against what has stood for 20 years raises a serious points of concern. Could the CSW actually be a moment of regression rather than forward momentum?
The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action focused on, amongst other elements, Women and Poverty, Education and Training of Women, Women and Health, Violence against Women, Women and Armed Conflict, Women and the Economy, Women in Power and Decision-making, Institutional Mechanism for the Advancement of Women, Human Rights of Women, Women and the Media, Women and the Environment and The Girl-child. It also explicitly recognised the role that women’s advocates and feminists had done to bring these issues to the fore, this acknowledgement was key in understanding the role that women had played in attempting realise their own equality and the price that some advocates paid in doing so.
The growing strength of the non-governmental sector, particularly women’s organizations and feminist groups, has become a driving force for change. Non-governmental organizations have played an important advocacy role in advancing legislation or mechanisms to ensure the promotion of women. They have also become catalysts for new approaches to development.
Together with the Millennium Development Goals, (MDG) which, amongst others, aimed to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education…no later than 2015 and to improve maternal health as well as reducing child mortality, these two platforms were considered concrete steps forward. Whilst the implementation of both the Beijing Platform and the MDGs has left a tremendous amount to be desired, for example if we look here in Ireland we can see serious problems with achieving what was set out in both these documents, the presence of such aims gave advocates a strong grounding on which to base their claims against governments and other organisations.
What has struck many as problematic in the run-up to Beijing is the pre-ordained settlements that appear to have been made prior to the CSW itself as well as the roll back that some are calling for. The Women’s Rights Caucus is reporting that the Holy See (which is a non-member permanent observer state), Indonesia, Nicaragua, Russia and the Africa group of countries are attempting to limit references to human rights in the final text and critically to remove mention of the role feminist groups play in advancing gender equality from the Declaration. The Holy See is also advocating the removal of the standalone gender equality target proposed in the Millennium Development Goals from the declaration. The Women’s Rights Caucus and have asked organisations to support its call to stop the Declaration from being watered down.
These are serious attempts to undermine the achievements of Beijing and the MDGs. Removing references to feminist groups is a clear assertion that feminism lack legitimacy in advocating gender equality, that less radical voices are required and that ignoring feminist voices is an acceptable stance for a government to take. Such a retrograde step against one doctrine which has been so fundamental in achieving what has been gained by women is astonishing. Failing to acknowledge past achievements and a future role is a clear attempt to re-write the history of women and to prevent feminism from taking a lead in the future. Whilst women are used to being written out of history, such a blatant attempt to do so within a history about women seem preposterous.
The advocacy of the Holy See, itself a form of doctrine, and the significant role it has a religious group above all other religions, who must rely on states to make their cases, ought to be seriously questioned. Allowing one religion to have such a powerful voice against women’s substantive equality when it is completely dominated by one sex and one view of the role of women should be a serious issue for the UN. The Holy See’s alliance against feminism, the use of human rights and gender equality as fundamental part of development needs also to be queried by those within the Church. The World Bank and IMF, which are currently leading a campaign against the gender pay gap, have repeatedly stated that women’s substantive equality within the workforce will be a strong driver of economic development. Whilst we can question what the World Bank and the IMF regard as development and their past roles regarding gender, their acknowledgement that restricting women’s choices in the workforce has a negative impact on a whole country ought to be a stronger voice than the Holy See.
Whilst the final outcome of the CSW remains open it is frustrating that 20 years after Beijing women must again fight to have their history, rights and development acknowledged, a step we perhaps had thought had already been taken.