Foreign Policy Blogs

Acronyms and Acrobatics

EL Kirchner's Acrobats (public domain)

Tomorrow, March 15th, will mark the final day of the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW57). As mentioned in my previous post, the theme running throughout the session is the issue of violence against women (VAW). If you’re unsure as to why this is a necessary focus, please remember that we live in a world where, in South Africa for example, a woman born there is “more likely to be raped than educated.”

A participant at CSW57 wrote that, “Every March 8, leaders and civil society organisations from across the world commemorate International Women’s Day with undue enthusiasm and a pat on their backs for pushing ‘forward’ the gender equality agenda.” In some countries, women are officially given the day off, there are parades and events. Yet, she continues,

“While expecting thousands of women to be marching down the streets of New York to celebrate their special day it was sobering to note that many participants at CSW found no real value in celebrating when women continue to be raped daily, all forms of violence against women persists unabated and that women’s equality is far from reach.”

Indeed, another attendee commented that she was concerned nearly 50 years later, history would repeat itself: “Forty-seven years ago, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women deliberating on the same topic as this year — preventing and eliminating violence against women and girls — failed to reach agreed conclusions. Every indication is that the 57th session of the global body charged with delivering gender justice to the women of the world will end in the same way.”

Are women’s voices being heard? Or is CSW57 another example of closed-doors negotiations where the lowest common denominator wins out to the benefit of, well, not many? Jenny Birchall of the Institute of Development Studies noticed that there seem to be three CSW57s running in parallel. The first CSW is where the official state delegates sit ensconced within the U.N. buildings, negotiating (well, diplomatically arguing) about outcomes, documents and wording. Then comes the second CSW — collections of activists and strategists dedicated to lobbying and pressuring the participants of the”‘first” CSW, hoping to maintain the strong and direct language of outcome documents too often watered down to appease certain interests. Then comes the third CSW — external events mostly organized by NGOs where the public are encouraged to attend and discover what’s going on beyond their own backyard. And the connection between all these CSWs? That question left Jenny Birchall wondering and me too.

Alongside the acronyms floating around, certain states have been engaging in political acrobatics to limit the reach of a CSW conclusion document (should one even be achieved). The Centre for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) and IWRAW Asia Pacific issued a statement condemning the backflips some parties are attempting, “alarmed and disappointed that the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women is wavering in its commitment to advance women’s human rights as demonstrated in the constant negotiation of the language in the outcome document continues.”

They question why states are continuing to try negotiate already established standards, powerfully noting that “Women’s human rights are not to be negotiated away.” Furthermore, they call for the rejection of any and all attempts to invoke “traditional values and morals” as excuses as to why women’s rights should be limited and infringed upon.

This is echoed in a statement issued by NGOs forming part of the Arab Caucus at CSW57, a grouping “deeply concerned with the role of the leadership of our countries in the negotiations on the crucial issue of violence against women and girls.” They are highly critical of the fact that their governments are “increasingly using arguments based on religion, culture, tradition, or nationality to justify violence, discrimination and allow the violations against human rights [to] continue with impunity.”

With the sheer number of states involved in CSW57, the need for flexibility and compromise is clear. However, the real impact on human lives means there should be a point where compromises are prevented from becoming a step too far.



Cate Mackenzie

Cate works as an editor in Zürich, Switzerland. She holds an MA in Comparative and International Studies from ETH Zurich, and a BA (Hons) in International Studies with Political Science from the University of Birmingham (UK).

She has previously lived and worked in Fiji and the US.