Written by Ayushi Kundu Commissioned by Angeline Franklyn
To escape boredom during the nation-wide lockdown imposed in light of the global pandemic, I recently read a bestselling book called ‘Princess’ by Jean Sasson. The story revolves around the life of a real life Saudi princess (Princess Sultana), who although has access to enormous wealth, is nevertheless denied her basic rights as a woman, and her life is subjected to control by the male members in her family. My reasons for referring to this book is explained hereinafter:
Although written almost 3 decades ago, the general context of the book, viz. subjugation of women’s rights, remains a cause of concern for women and civil rights activists across the world. Despite 64 sessions of the Commission on the Status of Women, promulgation of international law on the rights of women through declarations and international conventions including the CEDAW, World Conferences and ambitious millennium/sustainable development goals, every nation of the world is still struggling to achieve gender parity at home, at work places, in parliaments, on the streets and even in the womb – just about everywhere! Princess Sultana’s story is replicated in every nook and cranny of the world, in varying degrees.
Amidst such a situation, the global health crisis – Covid 19, has forced us to take a step back. The 64th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, which was expected to take place from 9thMarch, 2020 till 20th March, 2020, and which would be a chance to review the progress made since the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, when the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted, was called off to contain the spread of the deadly virus. What would have been a chance for thousands of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and state parties to put forth their demands and expectations for the rights of women, was instead reduced to a procedural meeting, without any scope for general discussions. The fight against women’s rights now seems thwarted and faced with vast uncertainties.
Widespread discontentment was seen among activists owing to the lack of political will demonstrated in the political declaration that was adopted in CSW64. The Women’s Right Caucus – a global coalition of more than 200 feminist organisations, networks and collectives that advocates for gender equality at the United Nations, therefore adopted an alternative Feminist Declaration. Clause 36 of this Declaration very poignantly states: “….The outcomes of the Fourth World Conference on Women, instead of becoming the stepping stones to the next progressive feminist agenda, has become the maximum limits that state parties do not want to go beyond. With this Feminist Declaration, we remind governments that the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action belongs to our movements. We present the scope and potential of where it is possible to take the work of realising our fundamental human rights when we are not held back by weakness and lack of courageous action, and we reject the actions of regressive groups who reinforce patriarchy, nationalism, fundamentalism, authoritarianism, and capitalism….”
With this in mind, expectations and questions from future CSW sessions are discussed hereinafter by reviewing past sessions:
Increased participation of CSOs through use of technology
CSW64 having been reduced to merely a procedural meeting greatly impacted the voice of CSOs. Physical participation was only restricted to those NGOs which held a valid annual ECOSOC ground pass, and others had the option of watching a live telecast of the meeting. Further, there was no opportunity for general discussions, and the only effective way CSOs were able to contribute to the meeting was through their supplements in the national and regional reviews. The resulting political declaration which was adopted has been severely criticised by many for having done little to advance feminist causes. Without any real commitments or ambitions, it seems to have merely reiterated the commitments made during the Fourth World Conference.
In light of the above, how does one ensure that regardless of the circumstances, CSOs still have unrestricted participation? Perhaps the solution is technology, and optimum use of the same will ensure that CSOs have the chance to talk, ask questions and present views, even without their physical presence. The same will also ensure that when NGOs are not able to attend CSW sessions owing to expenses, they have due representation.
Removing cost and institutional barriers to CSO participation
Perhaps in extension of the above expectation, CSOs have a legitimate claim of removing cost as well as institutional barriers to their seamless participation. Under Article 71 of the UN Charter, the ECOSOC is entitled to make provisions to allow for its consultation with NGOs ‘which are concerned with matters within its competence’. The CSW has time and again recognised that NGO participation is crucial and a critical element for its own success.
However, a recent study reviewing the CSW session held in 2010 (Rincker et al, 2019) has shown that the CSW still lacks optimum representation of women’s NGO, and the level of responsiveness to women’s NGO is low. This can be attributed to the following reasons: it is difficult to gain the consultative status at the ECOSOC due to very high costs as well as stringent rules; there remains large underrepresentation of some of the UN regions such as Latin America and the Middle East – maximum participation can be seen from North America (explained by the low cost of travel); and during the formal sessions or ‘side events’, most of the women’s NGOs are preoccupied with the parallel events, thereby limiting their opportunity to have a direct dialogue with governments and state parties. Added to all of this is of course the cost of attending CSW incurred by an individual, which could be anywhere between $2000-$3000 for a week, even on a very tight budget. Moreover, it is also very difficult for many to acquire a visa to travel to the US.
So how can the CSW assure that NGOs, particularly women’s NGOs will not be sidelined and more attention will be provided to diverse women’s population?
Several feminist factions have been pressing for a Fifth World Conference on Women. During the course of the Four World Conferences on Women held between 1975 and 1995, women’s NGOs participation grew rapidly from 6000 in Mexico City to 8,000 in Copenhagen, 12,000 in Nairobi and 30,000 in Beijing. Convening the World Conferences have shown that the CSW has become more responsive and representative to diverse women’s population, and the gender equality agenda has expanded. The above study has also shown that not having further session of the World Conference on Women has reduced the participation of women’s NGOs in CSW, impeded their ability to work with CSW to craft policy and in general, reduced the effectiveness of the CSW, since scant attention is given to women’s NGOs and their agenda, and state parties grab the centre stage.
Additionally, rotating the seat of the CSW to the other UN Centres will also ease the strain on the pocket, whilst ensuring diverse NGO participation.
Expanding the feminist agenda
Let us not be naïve to accept that this is all that there is to CSW. A lot more is expected, a lot more is required to be done. The challenges particularly faced by rural and indigenous women are severe, compounded by corporate impunity – they are increasingly exploited by transnational corporations, in active collusion with governments. When voices are raised against such human rights violations, they are ruthlessly suppressed, as was the case with Berta Cáceres, an indigenous woman, who was assassinated in 2016, for protesting against the construction of a dam in Honduras (the Agua Zarca dam project).
Due to the neoliberal development approach adopted by most state parties today, they are unwilling to exert their political will to expose unfair corporate practices, as a result of which anything overtly ‘political’ is conveniently left out of the CSW conclusions, thereby, unfortunately, further shrinking the space for CSOs and in turn an extensive agenda for women’s rights. As has been rightly observed by Zehra Arat, “while many Third World/transnational feminist concerns are articulated in UN outcome documents, these documents have been silent on class oppression or fail to mention capitalism by name as a contributor to the hardship faced by many women.”
Furthermore, the conclusions adopted at the CSW seems to be reflective of the rights of liberal women, rather than women from more indigenous backgrounds. For instance, resolutions are not passed on land rights for women, or on the right to access internet, or the effect of climate change on women and girls. Women who bear the brunt of national/international conflicts are also not represented in these conclusions.
It is easy to sum up expectations from future sessions of the CSW in this case…a more wholesome and inclusive approach towards the rights of women, which is representative of women from all across the globe, and not one particular section. After all, it is important that equality must be achieved among equals, i.e. women from every cross section of society. Conclusion Although I have not exhaustively discussed expectations and questions from future sessions of the CSW, the crux of the matter is that a constant lack of political will has been displayed by state parties to adopt practices which will lead to a more diverse realisation of women’s rights. CSOs, particularly women’s NGOs continue to be sidelined in the more formal sessions held during CSW, which thwarts the progress of women’s issues at the grassroots level, particularly in more disadvantaged areas. The immediate concern of the CSW should be to expand the shrinking space for CSOs by removing institutional and political barriers so as to achieve equality for women more homogeneously About the Author: Ayushi Kundu is a practicing advocate at High Court of Calcutta specialising in civil matters. She is a recent graduate from Queen’s Mary University, London in 2018 following which she secured a Graduate Diploma in Law from London Metropolitan University in 2019. Through her membership in several reputed social service and non-governmental organisations, Ayushi strives to serve women and girls from underprivileged backgrounds at a grassroots level. Ayushi currently serves as the Soroptimist International President’s Appeal Coordinator. She had the opportunity to attend the 63rd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW63) as a Soroptimist International delegate in March 2019, where she was also a panellist and spoke on the need to push more women and girls in the STEM sector, at a parallel event organised by NAWO and Advance.