The Future of CSW: Expectations, Questions and Reviews
By Sahar Moazami, UN Program Officer, OutRight Action International
Coming out of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) – the UN’s key body driving gender equality – created one of the most critical women’s rights documents to date: the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. This document was created to continuously push forward on gender equality, and the CSW became the platform to drive this. While the Beijing Declaration remains the core platform by which gender equality may be quantified on an international scale, the CSW is not fulfilling its role of ensuring continuous progress. Yet it remains the central UN organ promoting gender equality, and a key convening space for global civil society and progressive states. As such, while its power may be diminishing in terms of being a driving force for progress, it still remains a platform from which gender equality efforts can be driven by civil society and individual states, making it perhaps an even more important body for human rights defenders to engage with.
A Changing Political Climate
Historically the CSW has played a crucial role in driving women’s rights, setting a global, inclusive gender equality agenda, and keeping states accountable to their commitments. But as with any multilateral space, it is volatile and subject to political shifts and political will. Realistically, at the moment, we are in a tough time. As populist and right-wing governments have gained power across the world, the CSW has shifted accordingly.
For example, in the past four years the US has transformed into one of the top/main opponents of progress around gender equality principles. In recent CSW convenings the US has been among those leading efforts to replace the definition of gender to one of biological determinism, including binary gender language which excludes LGBTIQ people, and attacking sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) initiatives. Brazil too once supported a progressive agenda at the UN, and now, under President Bolsonaro’s leadership, joins the US in changing course entirely.
This, in turn, empowers traditionally conservative voices, such as Russia. Russia has staunchly opposed not only inclusive gender equality, but has also been increasingly amping up restrictions for civil society participation in the space. Having new allies in the US and Brazil, as well as others, and with President Putin likely sticking around until 2036, means this attack is unlikely to relent. A number of key elections are coming up this year and next, and they will determine whether the space becomes more or less progressive.
These political shifts affect the UN as a whole, as regressive forces are present in every space, they are never silent, and, while giving the impression of working within the spaces and within the scope of the various UN mechanisms, they undermine them from within. Conservative politics are in an increasingly dominant position, putting civil society in defense mode as we not only risk further progress, but face regression of the progress made to date. Nowhere is this more visible than at the CSW, as gender equality has, in many ways, become the loudest battle ground between progress and regression. In this context the CSW can not fulfill its mission; in some cases it even struggles to maintain the status quo.
Mobilizing Point for Global Civil Society
While state support may be decreasing, and pulling the effectiveness of CSW down with it, civil society engagement has grown exponentially and is filling in the gaps. Civil society sees and feels the backlash and we are pushing back. The CSW presents a unique opportunity for civil society from across the globe to come together and work together towards a common goal. With each year, more and more LGBTIQ human rights defenders are engaging with this space, coming together to exchange strategies, lived experiences, and best practices.
Over the years we have formed working groups across feminist organizations, across LGBTIQ organizations, and broader human rights coalitions too. Together, for several years in a row, we have managed to hold the line on inclusive language, despite growing efforts from some states and conservative civil society. This year, when a political declaration merely reaffirmed 25 year-old gender equality commitments but fell short of taking any further steps toward committing to achieving it or explicitly recognizing the impact of gender inequalities on LGBTIQ people, civil society came together to publish the Feminist Declaration, outlining commitments that states should have made.
Though divisions exist among civil society, they are no longer as clear cut as conservative and progressive civil society. As the participation and visibility of civil society has grown, the divides have also become more apparent. There has been growing mobilization among organizations and activists who support SRHR and access to abortion, for example, while being staunchly opposed to sex work or acceptance of trans people, which are core to asks of the LGBTIQ movement. These divisions have become more visible. We used to only have to watch out for the right-wing organizations, but now we may be sitting next to anti sex work activists who claim to be feminist.
Still, despite the divisions, the force of civil society at the CSW is undeniable, impressive and inspiring. The cross-sector, cross-border, cross-issue collaborations mean that we are, even with lower state backing, ensuring that some progress continues to be made toward gender equality.
Role of CSW in the Future
Unfortunately, the CSW is no longer a space where we are going to see major normative progress around bodily autonomy. It will continue to be politically fractured. But what it will remain, or even become more so, is a mobilization point where civil society can come together, work out various issue areas and put them in a globalized view. Where we can collaborate, think through things together, and devise common strategies.
This is also a space where progressive states, who are seeing a growing backlash among state ranks, can connect with like-minded civil society and build creative, cross-sector alliances. For example, during this year’s program, prior to postponement, the EU was going to host an event on diverse and inclusive families – a topic for which there isn’t consensus even within the EU itself, with growing opposition in Poland and Hungary for example, let alone among the UN family. But by partnering with OutRight this was a topic the EU could raise regardless. The importance of efforts like this can not be overstated.
Is the power of the CSW decreasing? Absolutely. Are we likely to get monumental progress from the CSW right now? Probably not. But is it still important for achieving gender equality? Without a doubt. And so we at OutRight are going to continue engaging in the CSW platform. We are going to continue pushing for an inclusive gender equality agenda, and urging states to push among their peers too. The environment has changed, it is no longer a race to the top, it is no longer driven by states, opposing forces are growing both among states and civil society. But that does not mean that it has lost its importance. In some ways that makes the platform even more important to engage with thoroughly and creatively right now.
About the Author: Sahar Moazami, United Nations Program Officer at OutRight Action International, is based in New York. Sahar is a New York State bar admitted attorney with a focus on international human rights law. Sahar is a first generation Iranian-American born in London but primarily raised in New York. They attended Boston University for their undergraduate degree, majoring in Political Science and minoring in American and Persian history. Upon graduation, Sahar volunteered with the AmeriCorps FEMA Corps program, traveling the United States for 10 months aiding disaster survivors. After completing the 10 month service position Sahar returned to New York to attend Fordham Law School. Sahar obtained her Juris Doctor from Fordham Law School in 2017. As a student at Fordham Law, they heavily engaged in student activism through leadership positions in a number of student groups including the Coalition of Concerned Students, the National Lawyers Guild, Advocates for Sexual Health and Rights, and Fordham OUTLaws. Sahar was also a member of the Stein Scholars for Public Interest Program and was a Crowley Scholar for International Human Rights.