By Aaron Holtz and Katie Munk
The Commission on the Status of Women (known by its acronym CSW) is the top forum where United Nations Member States meet annually to discuss, debate, and ultimately agree on a set of policy recommendations, called “Agreed Conclusions,” for the advancement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls from local levels to internationally.
Governments and civil society, working together through the CSW, have achieved some groundbreaking achievements for women’s rights since its inception. Perhaps the most notable is the creation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) — an expert body that upholds human rights by investigating violations, abuses, and discrimination against women and girls.
But despite substantial progress in recent years, the global community is very far from achieving gender equality. Even in 2022, “we are still living with the results of millennia of patriarchy that excludes women and prevents their voices from being heard,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said as he opened the 66th session of the CSW on March 14. “We cannot realize any of our goals without the contributions of all.”
As Global Citizens, we should make ourselves aware of the progress achieved when governments and civil society, with good will and intention, come together to advance gender equality. But we should be realistic about the great challenge that still lies ahead to achieve true gender equality and, even more so, gender justice and equity.
Only by reflecting on the CSW’s march toward gender equality, confronting current gaps for African women’s access to justice, and acknowledging intersections with issues like climate change can we look forward to new ways of manifesting gender justice and the ultimate achievement of the Global Goals.
How the UN Prioritizes Gender Equality
Over the past two years, we have seen renewed evidence of the patriarchy’s hold on any progress toward gender justice.
Global crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, intensifying conflicts, humanitarian disasters, and increasing effects of climate change, have exposed the systemic barriers to equality and justice for women and girls in an unprecedented way.
When UNSG Guterres unveiled his landmark report Our Common Agenda in 2021, this new social contract elevated women and girls as essential participants in society, and called on governments to seize this opportunity to realize gender justice. At CSW, he reiterated this point.
“Gender equality and women’s rights must be at the heart of a renewed social contract that is fit for today’s societies and economies,” he said.
"This is a historic moment. Today, you made new commitments to advance women’s and girls’ rights. You confirmed their invaluable role in driving climate solutions."— UN Women (@UN_Women) March 26, 2022
Full #CSW66 closing remarks by @unwomenchief Sima Bahous https://t.co/jBv3ud7pMO
Recognizing women and girls as key agents of change, and placing them front and center for decision-making, is essential to achieving all Global Goals (also known as the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs) — specifically Goal 5 (Gender Equality) and Goal 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions).
Organizations like the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Justice, and Inclusive Societies, one of Global Citizen’s civil society partners in justice advocacy, are instrumental in the march toward gender justice and equality. The Pathfinders’ Justice for Women initiative is working closely with stakeholders in the lead-up to the 2023 SDG Summit. The coalition also convenes quarterly calls with individuals and organizations working on justice for women across regions to inspire one another, share information, align efforts, create synergies, and form a powerful network to effect change.
This is what makes the CSW unique. As the top global body that joins the different ideas and solutions of grassroots activists, civil society organizations, and top decision makers together, the CSW promotes empowerment for women and girls from all levels of society. What’s more, the CSW was a litmus test this year to see if Our Common Agenda is resonating in a meaningful way to generate progress toward women’s rights and gender justice.
African Voices for Gender Justice
This year’s CSW session focused on gender equality and justice in the context of climate change and disaster. Intersectionality and diversity were a crucial part of these discussions, along with women’s leadership, economic opportunities, and feminist funding — something that the CSW has lagged on in the past.
Discussions highlighted community changemakers and their localized solutions to combat climate change and other issues that decrease women’s empowerment. But troublingly, representatives of marginalized women and girls often aren’t given the opportunity to raise their voices at CSW events.
Historically, African women’s concerns and solutions around the Global Goals have been neglected both inside and outside the CSW. In response, the first Africa CSW launched this year to spark effective inclusion and participation for African women. This alternative meeting, organized through Femnet (the African Women’s Development and Communications Network), convened 60 representatives from 18 countries in conferences held concurrently with the opening sessions of CSW66, and had a digital presence on social media through #AfricaDisruptCSW66.
Although living in a more digitized world hypothetically allows more participants into events like the CSW, international organizations must be mindful that digitalization can push away marginalized women even further.
In an op-ed written for the Guardian, Memory Kachambwa, the founder of Femnet, explained: “In most African countries, the internet is so expensive. Between a choice of buying bread for their children or logging on to a one-hour meeting, what will women choose?”
“To address climate and economic justice effectively we need to dismantle oppressive pre-colonial systems, structures, & gender inequalities,” says @kachambwa join our climate justice team right now: https://t.co/uxMJqzDpj6#FeministClimateJustice#FemGND#AfricaFeministStoriespic.twitter.com/4842fLtTCX— FEMNET (@FemnetProg) April 12, 2022
The renewed social contract from Our Common Agenda holds that power needs to be redistributed to women equally to men, but we also need to recognize that empowerment often only focuses on women from the Global North while neglecting the needs of women in the Global South.
The reality that Black voices will either be minimized at CSWs, or worse, not be present at all, is a huge roadblock for finally realizing gender equality. This is not exclusive to women from the Global South — women with disabilities, LGBTQIA+ women, rural women, and adolescent girls from all regions are only a few other groups who face this same challenge.
We cannot be equal until we all have a seat at the table to set the agenda forward for gender equality — where our differences are recognized, valued, and incorporated into the renewed social contract.
How Can We Manifest Real Gender Justice?
The call to action that “climate justice is gender justice” was reiterated many times throughout the CSW by governments and civil society alike. To make that a reality, we must be willing to include and hold up those most influenced by climate change and their solutions to continue on the path toward gender justice.
Activists at CSW66 spoke out for the inclusion of more women’s civil society organizations, whose local responses are game-changers to climate change and other global issues. We also heard the need for increasing not just the amount but the accessibility to feminist funding and investments for women and girls.
Gender justice also includes governments and international organizations being able to see women, listen, and then act. At CSW66, we heard calls for better data, like the Pathfinders’ High-level Group Report on Justice for Women, to make policymaking more effective and actually target the needs of women on the ground. This report examines the justice gap for women and girls, presents strategies, tools, and approaches that work to increase access to justice to women and girls, and makes a call to action for national and local actors to close the justice gap for women and girls.
Looking forward to the second SDG Summit in 2023, the Pathfinders are partnering with UN Women, the International Development Law Organization, and the World Bank to capture data from a range of global and national sources to estimate the global justice gap for women; demonstrate its impact on women, families, communities, and economies; and present evidence of what works to provide justice for women and girls around the world.
Gender equality and gender justice require legal empowerment and people-centered justice services, which takes a deep understanding of their common justice problems and their experiences in trying to resolve them. Any global and regional advocacy and policy development must be connected to national action and local experiences, ensuring that women and girls' ideas and solutions guide these efforts.
Gender justice also includes ensuring that all women can access and be heard on the international stage.
There are ways to solve the CSW’s previous shortcomings. The first step must be greater representation of women in all their diversity. We must also prioritize the voices of women from the Global South and other marginalized women so that they are not just a part of the CSW, but lead it and its agenda.
Visibility is a key component of action. If women from all backgrounds cannot be heard, their solutions will never be implemented, and the Global Goals will never be reached.
As Chair of The Elders and first woman President of Ireland Mary Robinson said at CSW66: “Let’s recognize that women and girls are the agents for change, and if we would make them more visible, they would be more powerful.”
Global Citizen is committed to the achievement of gender equality, gender justice, and the empowerment of all women and girls. To find out more on how we are advocating for change this year, you can read our 2022 policy framework for our year-long campaign, End Extreme Poverty NOW — Our Future Can't Wait.