Pushing back: Commission on the Status of Women

Posted on 28/03/2019
By Shamima Muslim

I was a newbie at the sixty-third United Nations Women’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 63) and the Annual Consultation of Commonwealth National Women’s Machineries this month. It was a great feeling to meet a few of the pioneers who attended the same conference in Beijing in 1995 – still going strong and honouring us with their hallowed presence. But I was left wondering: Where is the vibrant African women’s feminist movement that took charge after Beijing 1995? The movement appears to have subsided with time.

Over the past two decades, the women’s empowerment movement ensured that more girls and women secure their agency and claim their rights to voice, as well as access to education, health, shelter, and political representation. It catalysed progress and gains but has fallen short of a complete transformation. It was all because of the work of a few activists who braved the odds and spoke out boldly and firmly in deed and in fact against all forms of discrimination against women and girls.

‘The women’s empowerment movement ensured that more girls and women secure their agency and claim their rights to voice’

My attendance at CSW63 was funded as part of an ongoing initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation which aims to revive, reconnect, and build a cross generational women’s movement, celebrating past gains and inspiring a bold future. It is my hope that this initiative will nurture a new generation of highly motivated and skilled young African feminist activists to continue the struggle.

Hazel Brown (left), feminist activist and pioneer delegate to the 1995 Commission on the Status of Women in Beijing, joined the activities in New York this month

About the CSW 63
Representatives from 45 UN member states, UN entities and the ECOSOC-accredited non-governmental organisations from all regions of the world attended CSW 63. The key themes of the event were: social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality, and the empowerment of women and girls. The programme was in line with global need: these thematic areas remain the major barriers to the full and effective participation of women in their societies.

‘We may have won some battles but the war towards a free and gender equal world is far from over.’

Push back against the push back
The new buzz-phrase for me is to ‘push back against the push back’. After so much work on women empowerment and equality, there seems to be a global push back against women’s rights issues and in some cases an erosion of the gains – in political participation for example. Women’s rights organisations and their allies must rise up and redouble their efforts to rebuild the movement. The UN Chief, Antonio Guterres, acknowledged this when he said ‘power is not given, power is taken’ (Mr. Guterres said this at a town hall meeting that Executive-Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, had chaired and opened with song).

Registering my presence at CSW 63
At that same lively town hall meeting, I tried to catch the attention of Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka, but to no avail. And so in the spirit of Mr. Guterres’ words, I approached him as he left the hall. In the few seconds I had, I urged the UN Chief to look into the challenges the movement faces. My argument – as it has been throughout – was that without a deepening collaboration between the media and the women’s movement, they will at best remain mere purveyors of news, rather than proactive shapers of new narratives and realities.

This is why I was pleased to moderate the session on how Ghana was incorporating gender into its social protection programmes: I got a chance to shape some of the narrative and I feel confident that next year, God willing, I will be able to do more…

My key takeaways from CSW 63

  • Learning about our shared humanity as women of different regions, religions, ethnicities and classes is crucial. Giving agency to these different voices is key to local advocacy and implementation of action plans
  • It was sad to learn that women’s political participation has regressed; we must push back
  • There is an urgent need to ensure women’s access to social protection systems, public services and sustainable infrastructure to level the playing field
    Africa and Ghana have even greater challenges in meeting these ideals, and must work to revive and rebuild a cross generational movement of young and old feminist activists to maintain pressure on power.
  • I was inspired by the conversation about youth and rural women’s participation as well as conversations to include men and boys on the agenda
  • My suggested key action points for African and Ghanaian participants are: mobilise to organize press interactions back home on the outcomes of the CSW63 meetings;  issue statements to government agencies highlighting the gaps in existing programmes on women empowerment and equality; organize intergenerational dialogues aimed at revamping the women’s movement and including newer, younger, or excluded voices; continue public awareness campaigns to increase knowledge and shape better attitudes towards women and girl’s rights.

My concluding advice, to all planning to attend CSW 64: by all means attend, but if you can: prepare, prepare, prepare. Above all be truly present when you are in the sessions and make many friends and contacts.

Shamima Muslim is Founder and Convener of a Alliance of Women in Media, Africa