There was a lot of discussion in the CSW 61 this year among NGOs on shrinking civil society space, and by that we do not mean physical space. We mean increased restrictions to women’s access to the work of CSW including by creating more legal and administrative obstacles to them. The US travel ban is just the latest in a series of obstacles. We also mean fewer possibilities for NGOs to have their voices heard, less influence exerted by them on what is being discussed in CSW, increased violations of the human rights of women activists, more generally representatives of NGOs, and increased restrictions to civil society’s work.
For example this year’s CSW has seen attacks on NGO access to the negotiation process. According to the NGO/CSW Committee outside the negotiations on Wednesday 22nd of March UN Secretary Staff removed NGOs from the building after 6 pm while negotiations continued late into the night. CSW Agreed Conclusions’ negotiations were moved to the ECOSOC Chamber and Trusteeship Council Chamber twice that week. These rooms are on the second floor which is off-limits to NGOs. This has severely restricted NGO/ government informal discussions hampering their ability to support the progress of the negotiations.
IAW has signed together with many other organizations a letter to Ambassador Patriota, Chair of CSW 61, concerning NGOs access to the negotiations at CSW 61. In the letter they are saying that over the last twenty years they have seen significant change in the way they have been doing their work. Less than 15 years ago NGOs were able to observe the negotiations and approach delegations on the floor of the UN Conference Rooms. In recent years their collaboration has been subjected to increasing restrictions limiting their 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 realize women’s human rights.
Finally they asked the cooperation of Ambassador Patriota in ensuring that the remainder of the negotiations is scheduled in Conference Room 4 or other accessible rooms to facilitate the working relationships of member states and NGOs in the final days of the negotiations. It is after all part of the critical legacy of collaboration between member states and civil society at the CSW which has delivered many advances for women’s human rights.
However it is not only in the UN that we face the shrinking space of civil society. In the last ten years human rights’ organizations, pro-democracy actors and wider civil society movements in many countries have been facing increased restrictions when trying to carry out their work. Governments make it more difficult to operate for civil society organizations who receive foreign support and funding. In many countries, human rights’ NGOs are restricted when they attempt to hold public gatherings, express their views or set up new organizations. In addition to this, individual human rights’ defenders are often subjugated to intimidation and harassment.
Space can start to shrink when governments see civil society as a threat. As a result they employ tactics to discredit and weaken them thereby shrinking the space in which they can work. This worrying trend is not limited to the authoritarian or dictatorial regimes. It is a global phenomenon that can also be observed in Europe including within the EU borders.
Finally the LGBTIQ community has been attacked through a bus which circulated in NY and spread hate messages. The International Organization for the Family, the National Organization for Marriage and CitizenGo were behind the bus and its hate slogans. Two of these organizations have been selected by the state to represent the US government at the CSW 61. The above organizations are well known for being notoriously anti-LGBTIQ. The orange bus was covered in the message “It’s Biology: Boys are boys… and always will be. Girls are girls… and always will be. You can’t change sex. Respect all”. OutRight Action International commented that broadcasting a message that erases and denies the reality that transgender and intersex children and youth exist is irresponsible, disrespectful and dangerous.
Under these circumstances a group of feminist organizations including IAW visited the Secretary General and invited him to attend the morning briefing of NGOs by UN Women. Soon-Young represented the IAW in the meeting in which he was handed a letter signed by 900 women organizations including IAW. In the letter among other issues they also reminded him that the UN has benefited a lot from women’s advocacy. Women raised awareness about domestic and other forms of violence, created the GEAR campaign that resulted in UN Women. The UN counts on women’s organizations to achieve progress in SDGs, in SC Resolution 1325 and its following, the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development, etc. In turn for the above they asked that the UN strengthens its commitment and support to feminist and women’s movements, to continue to have a strong multicultural voice at the UN. They invited him for an open dialogue with women during CSW 61 on their concerns and how to strengthen their partnership.
The UN Secretary General came to the briefing of NGOs on March 17th and discussed a lot of issues with them. What is very important is that Guterres acknowledges that there is a backlash today against many of the gains women made over recent decades. He said that we need to reverse this. There is also backlash against civil society in general and in many dimensions of human rights.
The explanation of this trend for Guterres lies in the following: as societies become more complex and as social media and governments feel less and less secure because they have less instruments of control, one of the attempts is to try to keep civil society under control. Limiting civil society space is a reaction to the feeling of governments that they are losing control of society. Mr.Guterres said he is trying to make governments understand that links with civil society are a way to improve governance, not limit the power of governments.
Guterres is of the view that we need to have a campaign to make sure governments understand that working with civil society is the best way to rule a country and that they understand that the UN needs to apply the same procedures within its work, because what is true at the national level in relation to the quality of democracy is also true at the global level in relation to the governance of democratic institutions.
Mr Guterres said that gender parity at all levels, political, cultural, economic and social, is a central objective and must be based on women’s empowerment. Gender parity will also be a central objective at the level of senior management as well as of the entire UN staff. We take it that parity refers to the full realization of women’s and men’s human rights.
The Secretary General sought suggestions and opinions of the civil society representatives on how the UN can move forward on its commitments on gender equality. He opened the discussion by sharing life lessons on the issue, telling the gathering that during his time as Prime Minister of Portugal one of his most difficult battles had been putting family violence on the national agenda. Antonio Guterres referred to women and children refugees, which are the most vulnerable among refugees because we live in a male dominated world and a male dominated culture. To be able to receive protection refugee women and girls should be empowered.
The representative of Baha’i International spoke about the shrinking space of civil society and asked for a highly positioned officer, an under Secretary General, to take civil society in his/her mandate. The Secretary General was very positive about it. He also recognized that the LGBTIQ community should be fully acknowledged at all levels and that the realization of sexual and reproductive rights is a question of social welfare.
He also said that human societies are the least prepared to help the young and that he would try to do his best in that respect as well. After a representative from an Iranian women’s organization described the situation of women in her country and said that stoning of women should not be possible in the 21st century, he said that he would look after women in that country.
The Secretary General said that gender mainstreaming should take place in all UN policies. Through gender mainstreaming, financing in different fields of the UN could apply to women as well. He also stressed that there should be zero tolerance to violence against women among UN staff, including peacekeepers. Human rights are crucial in achieving gender equality. Human rights should prevail everywhere in the world, but we can only act with the instruments we have. We cannot make miracles, he said.
There were a number of contentious issues. Some were the usual ones that are discussed every year, like family and sexual and reproductive health and rights. Both formulations are weak in the text. Moreover the US reserved its position saying that for them abortion is not part of sexual and reproductive health and rights. Civil society has also a weak formulation.
Other contentious issues have been:
- Unpaid care work. For some countries this is work done by women family members. Unpaid care work is a crucial component of this agenda. The Commission recognizes that it should be valued, recognized, reduced and it covers many aspects of it.
- Decent work. There was no consensus concerning its definition.
- Sexual harassment and how that affects women’s participation at work. Some people asked for an ILO Convention on sexual harassment at the workplace.
- Social protection floors have been omitted in the beginning by ILO probably because some governments did not want to accept them as they cover lots of people.
An achievement of this session has been strong language for migrant and indigenous women. Also many government delegations had youth observers, so youth was more integrated into CSW work.
During meetings organized by the Europe-North America Caucus, a number of NGOs challenged the role of UN Women saying that they were given more voice than women activists. They said that UN Women organize for us. They also criticized UN Women for not contributing to more knowledge on women’s issues.
According to Susan O’Malley, President of NGO/CSW NY, the word empowerment as used in the priority theme raises questions. The Oxford English dictionary defines empower as “to invest legally or formally with power or to permit as a person in power” an individual woman to achieve a gain without a sense of women collectively. Too often ‘leave no one behind’ is forgotten in discussions of empowerment when a woman is praised for breaking a previous economic barrier. According to O’Malley we need to see the priority theme in terms of human rights, a concept that works better horizontally than vertically.
Text of the agreed conclusions:
This year’s Commission drew the attendance of 162 Member States including 89 representatives at the Ministerial level. More than 3900 representatives from 580 civil society organizations came to NY from 138 countries.
The outcome document consisting of a set of agreed conclusions highlights barriers that women face, such as unequal working conditions, women’s overrepresentation in the informal economy, gender stereotypes and social norms that reinforce women’s concentration in certain sectors (such as health and social sector) and the uneven share of unpaid care work that women do.
- Governments committed to the implementation of equal pay policies through social dialogue, collective bargaining, goal evaluations and gender pay analyses, among other measures. The aim is to close the gender pay gap which is at 23% globally.
- They also addressed the issue of minimum and living wage as the majority of women are at the base of the pyramid. This means that the feminization of poverty can only be addressed if more women are to rise up the ladder of economic participation.
- The issue of care has been given attention as well as investment in social infrastructure in order for countries to be able to create sustained support for women.
- The text recognizes the importance of removing structural barriers to women’s economic empowerment, including ending all forms of violence against women and harassment of women and girls everywhere in the public or private space.
- Also the impact of the structures that hinder economic progress were viewed from the perspective of their impact on women migrants and refugees, older women, women living with disability and indigenous women and girls, discussing different intersectionalities that limit many women including those discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.
The following issues among others are also highlighted in the text:
- The plight of women in the informal sector, who have no social protection and the need for social reform;
- The importance of legislation that addresses the barriers that limit women’s economic empowerment as well as the norms than hinder women’s economic empowerment;
- The importance of data and statistics without which we are not in a position to address adequately progress and setbacks;
- The participation of women everywhere where decisions are made about them, in particular at policy making fields and in associations that address economic well-being including trade unions;
- A gender-aware climate change response;
- Gender-aware macroeconomic policies and tax policies;
- Education in STEM subjects and the readiness of women to participate, especially in the digital economy;
- Investing in the Women’s Agenda, including the availability of domestic resources for investment in the 2030 Agenda and more ODA directed to the agenda for women’s equality as well as for women’s economic empowerment.
- The Israeli resolution on ‘Preventing and Eliminating Sexual Harassment in the Workplace’ was adopted by consensus. This is the first Israeli resolution in the history of the UN that is being adopted without a vote.
- The resolution on ‘Situation of and Assistance to Palestinian Women’ was adopted with a recorded vote of 30 in favor, 12 abstentions and 1 (Israel) against.
IAW Delegation to the CSW 61.
This year I went to NY as head of a numerous delegation of the IAW to the CSW 61 (32 members). The Delegation had two meetings at the permanent Mission of Greece to the UN and discussed a number of issues: the Congress of Cyprus and its state of preparation, the state of play with Working Groups, developments concerning the database. People demanded to circulate a number of points to be taken over in the agreements to speed up the process. We also discussed: jobs of the Board, which does not seem to yield results; the state of play with the Action Program, which is doing well; our need to recruit organizations in Latin America and mobilize our member organizations in Africa and Asia.
Then I proposed a strategy of IAW for promoting accountability of governments at the national level, on the basis of the concluding observations of CEDAW on the reports submitted to it by national governments. During this meeting we also elaborated on a statement on the shrinking space of civil society worked out by Natalia Kostus, Tone Brekke, Susanne Riveles and others. Unfortunately this statement, due to be delivered during the meeting of NGOs with the Secretary General Guterres on March 17, was not delivered as there were too many people asking for the floor.
During the second meeting at the Greek Mission we also discussed the shrinking space for civil society at the UN and prepared another statement to be sent to Ambassador Patriota to do something to facilitate the participation of NGOs to the work of the CSW. One way could be to do so electronically, although this process would also face difficulties from a number of governments. Because of dissenting views among our members on what is the shrinking space for civil society within the UN, I did not forwards this letter to Ambassador Patriota.
We had a very nice dinner offered to us by Soon-Young, the head of our Delegation to NY and Vice President of NGO/CSW NY, where we met with some new friends who have recently become members of IAW: Nancy Kirshner-Rodriguez, Executive Director of the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls; two representatives of the Canadian Federation of University Women, one of which is already individual member of ours, Cheryl Hayles; two trainees from DPI as well as the IAW Delegation in NY and a number of members of the IAW Delegation to the CSW 61.
In NY nowadays NGOs have the right to organize one parallel event per NGO. This year IAW had one organized by Signe Vahlun from Denmark on sexism’s effect on women in the workplace, which was very good and had a lot of attendance.