From the 11-22 of March 2019, the 63rd United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) recently convened in New York, United States for its annual session that focuses on the promotion and empowerment of women and girls. As the main priority for this year’s session, discussions centered on social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and empowerment of women and girls. More than 5000 representatives from Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO), 150 United Nations (UN) member states, Feminist groups and other Civil Society Organisations (CSO), gathered this year at the UN headquarters for close to two weeks to evaluate progress on current goals towards gender equality. The discussions also help to identify challenges, review global standards and policies to strengthen interventions for the advancement of women and girls worldwide. Attendance for the event has increased exponentially over the years, indicating the increasing importance of women and girl’s rights across the globe as critical elements, particularly within the wider discourse on development.

Brief history of CSW:

The CSW was established on the 21st of June 1946 by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The full-fledged Commission was dedicated to ensuring women’s equality and to promoting women’s rights. Its mandate was to “prepare recommendations and reports to the ECOSOC on promoting women’s rights in political, economic, civil, social and educational fields”, and to make recommendations on urgent problems requiring immediate attention in the field of women’s rights. From its inception, the 15 government representatives that attended the meeting were all women, a unique tradition that has been maintained at all its meetings to this day. Equally significant is that the conference pre-organisation activities including design strategy, caucus meetings, networking about the various agenda items being negotiated in various committees, and lobbying work is mostly dominated by women. Additionally, this annual gathering is one of the few UN commissions that do not limit participation to states only.

What is the purpose of CSW?

Currently, CSW’s chief function is to “monitor and implement” programs that “promote the role of women in economic and social development”. These programs were subsequently adopted in world meetings that were held in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), and Nairobi (1985). Furthermore, CSW makes “recommendations to the Secretary General regarding increased participation of women within the U.N. system” including coordinating of UN programs that focus on women’s rights. Though a different body all together but with roots in CSW, it is important to mention the work of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the international treaty which was adopted because of the work that the CSW does. CEDAW’s mandate is that of watching over the progress for women made in countries that are the State Party to the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. A country becomes a State Party by ratifying or acceding to the Convention and thereby accepting a legal obligation to counteract discrimination against women. CEDAW monitors the implementation of national measures to fulfil this obligation.

While CSW has clearly opened new pathways for dialogue and cultivated multi-stakeholder commitment towards translating ideas about women and girls’ promotion and empowerment into reality, significant challenges remain about its representativeness at its major events traditionally held at the UN headquarters in the US. President Trump’s introduction of a blanket travel ban in 2017 towards citizens from Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Iran, and Yemen is one such challenge. With the ban staying in place till today, a significant number of members from different organisations in the six countries could not attend the conference since the ban came into force. This also meant that selected key note speakers couldn’t attend either, while a number of women leaders from Ghana, Cameroon, Nepal, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe who were hoping to participate in this year’s meeting were denied visas too. Looking at the list of countries on the travel ban, most affected participants were from countries largely plagued by poverty, war and on-going conflict. Particularly vulnerable groups such as women and girls make up the majority in these countries who bear the brunt of human rights violations and abuse in form of rape, defilement, torture and loss of life. The media is not short of stories where NGOs, philanthropists and other humanitarian groups are actively engaged in volatile and conflict-ridden countries in order to protect the rights of women and girls.

One form of contributing to this fight against inequality and poverty is including everyone in the dialogue – especially the women and girls who face these issues on a daily basis. These debilitating restrictions as imposed by the US government have inevitably taken away the rights of people to freely engage and openly share vital knowledge to improve the welfare of women and girls, while at the same time negatively affecting the ongoing and future work of participating organisations. This has brought into question “the legitimacy” of the CSW as an organisation that is supposed to speak for, empower and voice the problems of women and girls worldwide. More substantially, 700 plus civil society organisations signed a petition denouncing the lack of adequate access for NGOs and feminist groups to the event, a seemingly recurring problem too. Not only do the groups restricted from attending and contributing to the conference activities able to share important experiences and draw vital learning from these meetings, they act as critical interfaces for knowledge translation across social, economic, political and geographical contexts. They pass on valuable lessons down to their families, communities and countries. Unless this trend is addressed in the long run, the CSW’s mission to promote the diverse interests of women and girls from different social-cultural, economic and geographical backgrounds across the globe will be rendered ineffective. Unless we see a change in how the CSW operates or prepares for its annual meeting, representation and inclusivity will render the commission largely ineffective for the foreseeable future.

In this way, there is a strong rationale for its continued existence, given the role it plays in acting as a platform for marginalized women and girls across the globe whose voices need to be brought into development discourse. The CSW should provide the opportunities for interest groups focusing on the promotion of women and girls’ interests, and thereby help to address pertinent issues that affect women and girls at the lowest levels. Travel bans and visa denials are a major obstacle to achieving this, and thus all should be done to ensure these policies are rescinded or repealed.  While relocating the headquarters of the CSW to a more neutral country like Switzerland would provide some kind of relief against the fallout of flawed foreign policies such as the US government’s travel bans and visa restrictions, participants from poor backgrounds have to incur high costs to meet the high expenses associated with participation in international events such as CSW’s annual conference. Many of the women who attend such meetings usually require sponsorship to meet these costs. Very few are able to access the needed funding to participate in these discussions. If these discussions are critical for promoting the wellbeing and livelihoods especially of marginalised women and girls, then the CSW should find ways of facilitating the women and girls to make their way to the negotiating table. Targeted funding mechanisms need to be mobilized to support those who lack the financial capacity to attend and contribute to these meetings. Finally, one other recommendation that can be considered to improve the reach and effectiveness of the CSW is for the United Nations General assembly to give more power to the CSW. This can be addressed during the General Assembly. The UN General Assembly is one of the most important organs of the UN, and by prioritising issues raised by the CSW, it would give more weight to the importance of promoting women and girls’ rights.

Despite the above shortcomings, the CSW does carry out very important work. Even though the above travel bans and visa restrictions meant that fewer voices of women, girls and other related special interest groups working towards female welfare promotion and empowerment were heard, the CSW continues to act as a major platform for addressing gender equality-related issues such as extreme poverty. The Commission on the Status of Women is playing an influential role in influencing public policies and governments around the world accordingly. Without a doubt, promoting women and girls’ welfare across the world is critical and the CSW is playing an equally important role in this regard. However, while negotiations are going on each year, thousands of women and girls continue to suffer around the world due to lack of equal access to education, maternal health, unfair land rights among a host of other social, economic and political injustices. For as long as there exist restrictions on attendance for CSW’s annual conference, the CSW cannot be effective in its mission. The Commission on the Status of Women can definitely live up to its expectations, but not until it includes all the women’s organisations and representatives to its meetings and other related activities. It is acknowledged that sustaining an effective and efficient process towards addressing gendered injustices in a highly dynamic world is a painstakingly slow process that requires significant investments in form of finances, time and effort. Ensuring that as many interest groups as possible can have unrestricted access to contribute meaningfully to these processes is only but one small important step towards meeting the CSW’s expectations in the long run.