Campaigners welcome 'milestone' agreement at UN gender equality talks

The Guardian

The Commission on the Status of Women agrees to stand-alone equality goal in post-2015 targets and issues strong language against violence

Liz Ford, Sunday 23rd March 2014

UN Member states have agreed that gender equality and women's rights must be prioritised in future discussions on what should be included in the next set of sustainable development goals.

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Delegates meet at UN headquarters in New York for the 2014 Commission on the Status of Women. Photograph: Ryan Brown/UN Women

After two weeks of negotiations in New York, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) ended in the early hours of Saturday morning with an agreement that called for the acceleration of progress towards achieving the millennium development goals, and confirming the need for a stand-alone goal on gender equality and women's empowerment in the set of international targets that will be introduced once they expire in 2015. The agreement also said gender equality must underpin all other goals.

Campaigners welcomed the strong language in the outcome document, which had been fiercely fought over by delegates in the final days of negotiations.

The document will now be used to push for a stand-alone goal and the mainstreaming of gender equality into the sustainable development goals, which are currently being negotiated by the UN open working group.

There were concerns that some important references to women's rights would be removed or watered down in the document when the Vatican, which has a seat on the UN as a non-member permanent observer state, began pushing for significant changes to the text.

During the discussions, the Holy See reiterated that it could not support the use of condoms and that abstinence was the only measure to prevent HIV.

The African bloc of countries had also been agitating to include a sovereignty clause in the document. Such a clause would have allowed governments to ignore the recommendations that could interfere with their own traditions and practices. This clause was withdrawn.

The inclusion of the stand-alone gender goal also proved contentious and the final decision to include it was by no means unanimous.

But there is general agreement that this year's CSW did produce a strong outcome. The document makes specific references to uphold women's sexual and reproductive health and rights; there was agreement to eliminate all harmful practices, including child marriage and female genital mutilation, which, significantly, would in future not be referred to as "cutting". There were also explicit references made to a woman's right to access abortion services and for the development of sex education programmes for young people. And there was strong language around violence against women and girls. The document called for the elimination and prevention of violence and for the prosecution of perpetrators.

The document also called on governments to address discriminatory social practices, laws and beliefs that undermine gender equality.

Efforts to weaken calls for increased funding for women's organisations were successfully resisted.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women, said the agreement represented "a milestone toward a transformative global development agenda that puts the empowerment of women and girls at its centre".

In a statement to the commission, Mlambo-Ngcuka said:
"The safety, human rights and empowerment of women are pivotal in the post-2015 debate. UN Women is encouraged by the call of a large number of member states for a stand-alone sustainable development goal that addresses these issues. This will require political will, backed up by commensurate resources. As the commission rightly points out, funding in support of gender equality and women's empowerment remains inadequate. Investments in women and girls will have to be significantly stepped up. As member states underline, this will have a multiplier effect on sustained economic growth.

"We know that equality for women means progress for all. Through the development of a comprehensive roadmap for the future, we have the opportunity to realize this premise and promise. The 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women has given important impetus to making equality between men and women a reality."

Françoise Girard, president of the International Women's Health Coalition (IWHC), said: "By committing and investing in efforts to promote gender equality, governments can unleash the power of half the world's population to build a more peaceful, just, and sustainable planet.

"Agreement to a standalone goal on gender equality was not a foregone conclusion here, given the small, but very vocal conservative opposition to women's rights. It's a major step forward to have the commission agree to it."

Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the IWHC, added: "The commitments made by governments at the UN are an important victory for women and girls. We have achieved what we came to do, against great odds and the determined attempts by the Holy See and a few conservative countries to once again turn back the clock on women's rights."

Antonia Kirkland, legal advisor at Equality Now, said: "We are heartened that UN member states were able to reach consensus at the Commission on the Status of Women and endorsed the idea that gender equality, women's rights and women's empowerment must be addressed in any post-2015 development framework following the expiration of the millennium development goals.

"Throughout the process there has been broad agreement that freedom from violence against women and girls, as well as the elimination of child marriage and female genital mutilation must be targets within such a framework. Equality Now believes sex discriminatory laws, including those that actually promote violence against women and girls, must be repealed as soon as possible to really change harmful practices and social norms."

As expected, any mention of sexual orientation was removed from the final text, as was an acknowledgment of the diversity of families. Governments, including Norway and Argentina, said they would continue to push for these issues at CSW next year.

Amanda Keifer, international policy analyst at Advocates for Youth, said CSW had reflected the increasingly polarising environment in which sexual rights, particularly the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, are discussed.

"A number of governments have championed the most controversial issues in an incredibly hostile environment. But we have also seen hateful and regressive rhetoric from governments and far-right civil society organisations.

"There is no reason that sexual and reproductive health and rights should be so controversial in 2014."