The Commission on the Status of women was established in 1946 and is the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. The commission will also look at the progress and gaps in the implementation of the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which is a key policy document on gender equality.  Beijing platform for action covers 12 key areas that need to be addressed to achieve gender equality.

CSW is one of the major UN meetings that attract thousands of women and a few men for participation. More than nine thousand representatives from more than 1000 civil society organization registered to attend the Commission, but many were denied visas as had been happening for a few years. Many member states bring large delegations of officials and civil society members for the meetings.

The CSW 63 is currently in session at the United Nations in New York with a priority theme, “Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.” The theme acknowledges the importance of Sustainable Development Goal 5.4 – “recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally as appropriate.”  To showcase the urgency and importance of social protection systems, adequate and accessible public services and infrastructure is essential for the gender equality and empowerment of women and girls, hundreds of side/parallel events, known as best practices are held both inside the UN and in venues outside. There is a constant stream of people moving, rushing to attend events that highlight their concerns and other plenary and ministerial events. Hope is palpable in the air, that the civil society and member states gathered here can create a pathway to build a better future for women and girls, leading to societal transformation.

Universal social protection is part of the integral vision of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, calling for the eradication of poverty through the implementation of nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, especially for the poor and vulnerable. “Social protection or social security is a human right and is defined as the set of policies and programs designed to reduce and prevent poverty and vulnerability throughout the life cycle. Social protection includes benefits for children and families, maternity, unemployment, employment injury, sickness, old age, disability, survivors, as well as health protection…” (World Social Protection Report 2017) Only 29 per cent of the global population are covered by comprehensive social protection systems that include the full range of benefits – from child and family benefits to old age pensions. Which means 71 per cent or 5.2 billion people are not or are only partially protected.

It is true that because of increased social protection coverage in the past, more girls are in school today than before; more women have access to essential health services which has resulted in improved maternal and child health. 80 per cent of women in low-and middle-income countries have access to mobile phones and 48 per cent use internet.  In spite of these gains, 131 million girls around the world are out of school. Globally women have only three-quarters of the legal rights of men, and more than one billion women have no legal protection against violence and their participation in education and employment are limited. In general, women are disadvantaged in social protection systems. Women face lower coverage rates and substantially lower benefits levels. “For women and girls to benefit from social protection systems, all forms of discrimination must be eliminated,” says Hilary Gbedemah, chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

Another important aspect is the need to recognize the domestic and unpaid care that women contribute to the society. If all the unpaid care work is calculated, it would amount to $10 trillion. Due to child care responsibilities, women work part time and this in turn affects their pension contributions and in retirement they end up in poverty. For women to thrive, they must be ensured access to maternity protection must be guaranteed and sharing of domestic responsibilities must be promoted along with flexible work arrangements. Migrant women and girls are another group that face increased risk of poverty, exploitation and exclusion. They also are vulnerable to trafficking and sexual exploitation. They, along with older women and women and girls with disabilities need adequate protections and access to public services to stop their march into extreme poverty.

Here are some of the highlights from the opening day, March 11, 2019:

In her opening remarks, Geraldine Byrne Nason of Ireland, the Chair of the Commission said, “We are tasked to achieve a new global understanding of how social protection, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure can help empower women and girls and achieve gender equality…these are vital bread and butter, day-to-day real issues that matter to women.” She hoped that the commission can break new ground and agree on new normative standards without falling back on old rivalries or ideological arguments, to build on the achievements of Beijing Declaration and let women to lead the way.

Addressing the thousands of women gathered at the UN, the Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that “for far too long, women have been systematically marginalized, ignored and silenced” and thanked the participants for raising their voices.’ He also warned about the ‘deep, pervasive and relentless pushback on women’s rights’ and the increased violence against women human rights defenders, women running for political office and the online harassment and abuse against women who speak out. He stressed the need to “push back against the pushback” and said “striving for greater opportunity for all women is good for all…and when women are excluded everyone pays.” He closed his remarks by saying, “I am a proud feminist. You have my full support.”

Phumizile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Under-Secretary-General for Gender Equality and Executive Director of UN women said that “Families and communities who are most likely to be left behind are those who lack access to adequate infrastructure, who have restricted mobility, and those who cannot afford private services, such as child care, water, education and telecommunications infrastructure.” So, what is required is a stronger gender-responsive, human rights based and integrated approaches to the design, implementation and funding of social protection systems, public services and sustainable infrastructure, which are critical to free up women’s and girls’ time, support their mobility and access to economic opportunities. Women and girls must have a role in shaping the policies, services and infrastructure that impact their lives.

As the commission is in the final stages of negotiations for the agreed conclusions, the United States is leading the debate to dilute the language and remove the word “gender” from the document. The US State department had excluded women’s rights from its annual country report. In the past the US had attempted to change language in the documents of the UN human rights council. The US is also refusing to “reaffirm” the country’s commitment to the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform of action, which had been repeatedly endorsed since 1995. The US had played a leading role in the passage of Beijing Declaration, considered as the blueprint for global women’s rights and though not a legally binding document, civil society demand their governments implement policies based on its guidelines. US decisions will impact global conversations and potential decisions which can be hostile to the advancement of women and girls. We need to march forward to make great strides in gender equality and empowerment of women and girls, and not detract from the achievements made till now.

Teresa Kotturan, SCN is the NGO Representative for the Sisters of Charity Federation 


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