UNITED NATIONS -- The main U.N. body promoting women’s rights reaffirmed the 1995 road map to achieve gender equality on Monday and pledged to step up implementation amid warnings of rising gender inequality and conservative push-back against its far-reaching agenda.
The Commission on the Status of Women adopted a political declaration backing the 150-page platform for action adopted by 189 countries at the 1995 Beijing women's conference.
The commission, known as CSW, had been expecting up to 12,000 people from the U.N.’s 193 member nations to come to New York for its annual meeting. But it decided to postpone the major event to a future date because of the spread of the new coronavirus. Instead it held a drastically scaled-back event with New York-based participants to adopt the declaration.
Diplomats and civil society representatives in the General Assembly hall burst into applause when Armenia’s U.N. Ambassador Mher Margaryan, the commission chair, banged a gavel signifying the declaration's approval by consensus by the commission’s 45 member nations from all regions of the world.
Its approval came a day after International Women’s Day, when hundreds of thousands of women filled the streets of the world's largest cities to protest gender violence and inequality. While many protests were peaceful, others were marred by tension, with security forces arresting demonstrators at a rally in Kyrgyzstan and police reportedly using tear gas to break up a demonstration by thousands of women in Turkey.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told last week's United Nations' event marking the day that “gender inequality is the overwhelming injustice of our age and the biggest human rights challenge we face.”
Before Monday’s adoption of the declaration, he told the commission that change is urgently needed to transform the male-dominated world that has existed for millennia.
“Centuries of discrimination, deep-rooted patriarchy and misogyny have created a yawning gender power gap in our economies, our political systems and our corporations,” Guterres said.
He said the Beijing declaration and platform “define the most comprehensive and transformative global agenda for gender equality and women’s empowerment.”
The Beijing platform called for bold action in 12 areas for women and girls, including combating poverty and violence, ensuring all girls get an education and putting women at top levels of business and government, as well as at peace-making tables. It also said for the first time in a U.N. document that women’s human rights include the right to control and decide “on matters relating to their sexuality, including their sexual and reproductive health, free of discrimination, coercion and violence.”
The declaration approved Monday reaffirms the Beijing document and platform for action and expresses concern “that overall, progress has not been fast or deep enough ... that major gaps remain and that obstacles, including structural barriers, discriminatory practices and the feminization of poverty persist.” It pledges to take “concrete action to ensure the full, effective and accelerated implementation” of the road map.
Ambassador Olof Skoog, the European Union’s top diplomat at the U.N., said last week the E.U. wasn’t happy with the initial draft, negotiated by all 193 member nations, but “we played hardball” and got “the most detailed and action-oriented political declaration ever adopted by the CSW.”
He said there are advances in some areas and the declaration avoids “backtracking on some of the issues where there was huge push-back.”
One of these issues was the definition of the family, with traditionalists insisting on a mother, father and children and progressive countries wanting to include LGBT families as well, he said. Another was on how to mention sexual and reproductive health and rights for women.
In the end, Skoog said, direct references to both issues were dropped in the declaration. But since the declaration affirms the Beijing platform, what it says about the family and women’s rights and health will stand when the document is approved.
Several countries complained that the new declaration dropped a reference to the landmark U.N. Security Council resolution on women, peace and security adopted in 2000 that calls for women to be included in decision-making positions at every level of peacemaking and peace building. Participants said Russia was a key opponent saying it was an issue for the Security Council.
Jessica Stern, executive director of OutRightAction, welcomed the declaration’s references to “all women and girls” and “multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination,” which she said make the 2020 text more inclusive than the Beijing declaration. But she criticized the commission for failing to recognize the impact of gender inequality on LGBT people “who are disproportionately affected.”
Guterres told the commission that women are still outnumbered 3-to-1 by men in parliaments, that women still earn just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men and that some countries are rolling back laws that protect women from violence while others are reducing space for civic participation. And he said “women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services is far from universal.”
“We must push back against the push-back,” the secretary-general said.
After the commission’s meeting, the Women’s Rights Caucus, a global coalition of more than 200 feminist groups that advocates for gender equality at the U.N., published an alternative “Feminist Declaration.”
“It is not enough for governments to simply reaffirm past commitments,” the caucus said.
“To achieve gender equality," it said, “we need to commit to supporting feminist movements and to adopt a bold and forward-looking agenda” that includes tackling sexual and reproductive rights, a woman’s control over her body, and the importance of women’s in peace and security and the climate crisis.
UN Women Executiver Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said young women, especially, and Beijing veterans are prepared to challenge cultural biases.
“We are impatient and cannot yield even an inch to push-backs," she told the commission. “We have to push forward."