In March I had the opportunity to attend the 62nd Annual Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) for five days at the UN headquarters in New York. The Commission is the UN’s largest annual gathering on gender equality and women’s rights, and I joined more than 4,300 representatives from 170 Member states and over 600 organisations.
I attended as a delegate of the British Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), a global organisation that brings national parliaments together to drive positive democratic change.
The theme of the CSW this year was to address the challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls.
The Commission hosted a number of seminars, forums and meetings which explored global issues under the umbrella theme of rural women and girls, such as how achieving gender equality is essential to each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, sexism and how it can be prevented, and ending violence against women.
In between attending IPU side-events and NGO meetings my schedule allowed me to join many of the CSW forums and seminars through-out the week including:
- Under the Spotlight: Ending Violence Against all Women and Girls
- Addressing Sexism: Speaking Up, Preventing, and Co-operating
- Participation of Women in the politics in the Western Balkans
- The Role of Parliaments as Partners in Women, Peace and Security
- United Nations officer for project SEVICES: What Do You See? An Insight to Gender Mainstreaming in Infrastructure
- Afghanistan: Afghan Government Initiatives and Measures for the Improvement for Rural Women’s Situation
Two CSW sessions that particularly stood out were the “Ending Violence Against all Women and Girls” and “Addressing sexism: speaking up, preventing, and co-operating” discussions.
In the “Ending Violence Against all Women and Girls” session the question of intersectionality and reaching specific groups of women and girls was the central topic, and it was refreshing to see the panellists discuss the importance of identifying the barriers that prevent engagement with specific groups that face multiple forms of discrimination. The discussions highlighted how analysing these challenges will help to establish methods to end violence against marginalised women and girls.
The “Addressing Sexism: speaking up, preventing, and co-operating” panel featured Karen Ellemann, Minister for Equal Opportunities of Denmark, Charles Ramsden, Vice-Chairperson of the Council of Europe Gender Equality Commission, Purna Sen, the UN Women Policy Director and Emma Holten, activist and expert. The #MeToo movement and reports of pay inequality in high profile organisations such as the BBC have pushed sexism up on the political agenda once again, and the panellists debated the causes and different forms of sexism, in addition to the impacts of sexism and the measures needed to tackle it.
Tuesday at the CSW was designated as an IPU day, and as an IPU delegate this was the main purpose of my attendance. The IPU held a parliamentary meeting in cooperation with UN Women which I attended with over 140 fellow MPs from 42 participating countries. The parliamentary meeting was entitled “Parliaments deliver for rural women and girls”.
I attended all of the sessions of the day and each session looked at different ways to remove systemic barriers that prevent rural women and girls from overcoming inequality and discrimination.
Rural women and girls contribute significantly to agricultural production and food security. However, despite this they remain significantly worse off than rural and urban men, especially in terms of leadership and decision making, and access to justice and opportunities.
In the first session titled “Amplifying the voices of rural women and girls”, MPs explored and debated issues including what is needed to fulfil the promises of access to health for all women and girls and what prevents rural girls from being at school with focus placed on the role of parliamentarians in helping to solve these issues.
The second session “Addressing discrimination against rural women and girls”, examined how rural women and girls face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, injustices and violence, and how they disproportionately experience poverty and exclusion including lack of access to land ownership and natural resources. The session was attended by Charles Chauvel who serves with the United Nations Development Programme and I spoke about the importance of nutrition and food for rural women and girls, which as a member of the APPG on School Food is an issue close to my heart.
The third session explored how rural women and girls are closely connected to the environment and are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change. We discussed the best methods to hold governments, international institutions, donor and multinational companies accountable for the impact of climate change on rural communities, and the disproportionate impact on rural women and girls.
The outcome of the IPU sessions were very positive with MPs reaching several agreements to deliver for rural women and girls. Agreements included a commitment to laws that guarantee rights, justice and equality for rural women and girls, and to repeal discriminatory laws that impact negatively on their lives.
The following day, the IPU also held a series of side events, these were: “Making it safe for Women in Politics: Seeking institutional solutions”, Gender and youth quotas: Complementary or in competition?” and “Advancing gender equality in nationality laws”.
I attended the “Making it safe for Women in Politics” session which the IPU co-organized with UN Women and the Permanent Mission of Canada. The session focused on violence against women in politics, an on-going global issue demonstrated by the IPU’s research which found that 20% of women parliamentarians had experienced sexual harassment, 12.7% had experienced a threat of the use of physical violence against themselves, and 14.5% said they had been denied funds to which they were entitled during their terms in office. The forum was very popular and I was joined by 130 attendees.
In between attending CSW and IPU events I was also met with many NGOs and attended NGO hosted forums throughout the week. Each evening the UK delegations met with NGOs and representatives from the UK permanent mission to the UN to discuss the events and sessions of the day, and to plan ahead for the upcoming sessions.
Girls’ Education Challenge, a UK aid initiative, was also represented at the CSW and held a forum hosted by Penny Mordaunt, the Secretary of State for International Development. Launched in 2012, the Girls’ Education Challenge is the largest global fund dedicated to girls’ education and focuses on getting girls into school and learning.
I chaired several of the events hosted by the UK NGO CSW Alliance including the “Increasing Prosperity for Rural Women Implementing engendered SGGs targets in many goals”, and the “Young Women’s Roundtable”. The “Young Women’s Roundtable” event brought together young women and parliamentarians, including fellow British MPs Jess Phillips and Maria Miller who are both members of the Women and Equalities Select Committee. The Roundtable discussions looked at different issues including addressing domestic violence and encouraging young women to get involved in politics in rural areas
On Thursday I had the opportunity to chair the forum on The Voices of Young Women: Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls. The forum brought women together to discuss the diverse issues that prevent gender equality in rural areas.
Representatives from different NGOs in the forum spoke on the challenges and action required to improve access to sexual reproductive healthcare for rural women and girls, the importance of breaking the cycle of poverty for young women and girls, and how quality education can act as a catalyst for the advancement of women and girls.
It was very insightful to listen to the representatives share stories of women and girls in rural communities and the issues preventing them from receiving gender equality. Issues included lack of access to electricity and technical skills, female medical students receiving threats and judgment from their communities and in some cases being beaten, and poor infrastructure making access to school difficult.
On Friday my schedule allowed for me to attend a day of seminars and forums hosted by different NGOs, including “Transforming Society through Empowerment of Rural Women” hosted by the International Council of Women and, a forum on Innovating the use of the Media for Rural Women, held by the Pacific Rim Institute for Development Education.
Hosted by the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations (NAWO), “The Making the media female: action to make the face and feeling of the media female” forum which followed, involved discussions to help highlight key actions and interventions required to drive gender equality in the media. The event allowed for representatives to examine key challenges and systemic barriers to gender equality in the media, and also explored innovative solutions for women to access the media.
On my last day at the CSW I met with Purna Sen, Head of Policy at UN Women to discuss how the UK can act to support further the work of UN Women.
Attending the 62nd Annual Commission on the Status of Women highlighted two key factors for me. First, the absolute necessity of keeping gender equality issues high on the political agenda both at home in the UK and internationally, and second, in order to gain and maintain rights for women they have to be campaigned for constantly.
It was refreshing that the CSW62 agreed a set of strong outcomes to uphold the rights of women and girls, which acknowledged the particular needs of women and girls in rural areas. You can find the outcomes here: http://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/csw/62/outcome/csw62-agreed-conclusions-advanced-unedited-version-en.pdf?la=en&vs=3837
More than ever CSW this year demonstrated the value of women parliamentarians coming together to learn from each other. It showed the value of partnerships be it between governments or between parliamentarians and NGOs in early identification of problems and finding solutions that work. That includes getting women and girls access to employment opportunities and education, securing safe reproductive health, tackling violence and abuse, and addressing climate change.
Finally, I would like to give a huge thank you to the BGIPU and Zarin Hainsworth of NAWO for organising the liaison between the UK parliamentarians and various NGOS at the CSW.