Push back the push-back: Do women have a voice?

Women’s and girls’ rights under pressure: The CSW63 from 11 to 22 March 2019 was marked by laborious negotiations against the backlash. More than 100 Zontians from 23 districts and 17 countries had travelled to New York to campaign for effective action against the international problem of child marriage. The agreed conclusions once again strongly condemn child marriage and formulate concrete steps. But it remains a hard-won compromise paper. 

It’s one of those goose bumps moments you don’t forget in a lifetime. More than a hundred Zontians from four continents have come together at this year’s CSW in the UN Headquarters and at the venues around them to work together for a great goal: Ending child marriage. “We shall overcome”, when Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, welcomes UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres at the big Townhall Meeting in the United Nations with the famous protest song of the anti-racist US civil rights movement, everyone sings along. Around 1,000 NGO representatives from all over the world intonate verse after verse in polyphony. Sometimes it sounds harmonic, sometimes disharmonic. And again and again everyone tries to find their way into the big choir with their singing.

Strong presence of civil society

A more striking picture for the following discussion rounds in official meetings, side events and parallel events is hard to find. For ten days, tough negotiations took place on appropriate strategies and measures for social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructures for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. More than 9,000 NGO representatives and delegates met in New York. Many of them spent a fortune on it, measured by the average income of their country of origin. Some were prevented from entering the US, which was contrary to all applicable UN conventions. And 20 emissaries from Kenya and Ethiopia paid for the trip with their lives when their Boeing crashed after taking off from Addis Ababa with a total of 157 passengers on board. Therefore, the opening of the CSW63 in New York, in the sacred halls of the Securing of World Peace, Compliance with International Law, Protection of Human Rights and Promotion of International Cooperation, on a sunny March day began for many in shock and for all attendees with a minute’s silence.

Push-back threatens what has been achieved so far

Great hopes are placed in the supranational body of the United Nations. But these are hard times for the rights of women and girls, as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres emphasized in his opening speech. An increase in anti-feminist, nationalist and racist tendencies can be observed worldwide. Guterres warns of the deep and relentless pressure associated with this. “We will push back against the push-back,” he assured and added that the United Nations itself had made great progress in the meantime. His staff today comprises more women than men, a novelty in the history of the UN. Striving for more opportunities for women is good for all, he said. Economies could release billions of dollars if women had equal opportunities in the labour market. Sustainable development in his words means “to redefine power rather than women”, closing gaps, addressing imbalances and fighting to preserve hard-won gains.

Getting the job done

Commission President Geraldine Byrne Nason continued. “I’m not satisfied. We have been disappointed,” she noted, pointing to the current figures: “Today, one quarter of parliamentarians worldwide are women and, at the United Nations, only 46 Governments have named a female as their Permanent Representative.  Meanwhile, 130 million girls remain out of school. And it will take an estimated 217 years to reach gender parity in pay and work opportunities.” According to Geraldine Byrne Nason, “getting the job done” is of utmost importance, especially since it was almost 25 years ago that the delegates at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 had declared that women’s rights are human rights.

Tough negotiations, hard-won consensus

That was the beat for the following days in New York. The discussions and negotiations on the so called Zero Draft were sometimes conducted as relentlessly as hardly before. In its final version this Zero Draft forms as “Agreed conclusions” the basis for the commitment of the UN member states to common measures and goals. And indeed, for the first time, it was also about defending what had been achieved since the Beijing Resolution against numerous attempts to undermine the achievements. That is why the strong presence of civil society in long days and nights of negotiations was so important. The version of the Zero Draft first sent by the UN Women in January comprised seven pages. After ten days the document had 100 pages, with deletions and amendments. 23 pages remained after the revision. Chief Negotiator Koki Muli Grignon from Kenya presented the final declaration on 22 March, for a brief moment in tears. It had been tried to put her under pressure during the negotiations through cyberattacks and harassment. Numerous delegates from the audience stood up and publicly expressed their solidarity with her. Here is the recording of the deeply moving final debate.

Adopted with turmoil

The agreed conclusions were adopted by all delegates after Saudi Arabia had previously excluded itself from the consensus in which it criticized the negotiators for not addressing the role of the family and instead emphasizing sexual and reproductive health rights. Commission President Geraldine Byrne Nason asked for further objections, received no reply and adopted the final version by hammer blow. This led to furious attacks from Bahrain: there could be no talk of agreed conclusions, they would not have agreed and would have been simply ignored. Finally, the chairman had to point out that all procedural rules had been observed. Countries such as the United States, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Russia also rejected a globally agreed right to sexual self-determination and reproductive health as well as gender equality. The agreements were said to weaken national sovereignty. In principle, the agreements would only be respected to the extent that they do not violate national laws.

Child marriage strongly condemned

Despite such harsh objections the agreed conclusions of CSW63 can be judged as a success, also for one of the most important Centennial goals of Zonta International. Point 13 of the Agreed Conclusions strongly condemns child marriage and sections i) and p) formulate concrete measures to address this global problem, including working with local communities to combat negative social norms that endorse such practices. Combating family poverty and social exclusion, ensuring access to social protection and public services for girls and women, including education and health care, were agreed as measures to enable parents and communities to abandon such practices. These demands had previously played an important role in numerous roundtable discussions. Zonta International alone, together with its partners UNICEF and UNFPA, the NGOs Unchained at last and Breakthrough, as well as representatives of the Nigerian government, participated actively in four side- and parallel events and accompanied four government delegations in order to broadly discuss the topic and keep ending child marriage on the agenda. “Civil society partners can actively engage in ending child marriage. We are equipping our members with resources to address the issue of child marriage with their governments”, said Zonta International president Susanne von Bassewitz.

Find here more information and the recording of the side event convened by Zonta International and the Mission of the Republic of Niger:

At CSW64 in 2020, the anniversary year of the Beijing Resolution, it will continue to be crucial to join in together also with this issue in the big and loud choir, not to let up and to meet the pushback decisively. Antonio Guterres’s appeal to the assembled representatives of civil society has by no means lost its justification: “I got hope that you give me hope. Push back the push-back!” Zonta International, since 1969 non-governmental UN ECOSOC member with consultative status and since 1989 with general consultative status, will take its part there as a strong voice in order to fight for the fulfillment of dreams of all women and girls all around the globe. CSW matters! Yes, there is hope.