Scenes from the closing of the 62nd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, held at UN Headquarters in New York on 23 March 2018. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

The Commission on the Status of Women Has Concluded. What was accomplished? A UN Dispatch Q and A

The 62nd annual Commission of the Status of Women (CSW) concluded at the United Nations in New York City last week. Tens of thousands of advocates and policy makers from all around the world gathered at the United Nations for two weeks to discuss women’s empowerment and gender equality. The theme of this year’s meeting was around the “challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls.”

Rachel Jacobson, Program Officer for International Policy at International Women’s Health Coalition, is a veteran of these annual meetings. This year, Jacobson was on the ground negotiating for equal access to reproductive health for rural women.

UN Dispatch caught up with Jacobson as CSW was winding up. She explains her work and the role CSW plays in the advancement of women’s rights globally.

UN Dispatch: Why are you at CSW this year and what are you advocating for?

Rachel Jacobson: As the is a program officer with IWHC, I play a key role in our UN advocacy and analysis, both at CSW and at [the High Level Political Forum on the Sustainable Development Goals].

This year at CSW we are advocating for policies that guarantee the rights of rural women and girls that include ensuring equal access to education; creating gender-sensitive infrastructure for transportation, water, and sanitation; and guaranteeing equal access to land rights, inheritance, and economic resources, among others. Moreover, central to all women’s and girls’ equality and agency are sexual and reproductive rights that enable them to make decisions over their own bodies and futures.

Rachel Jacobson, Program Officer for International Policy at International Women’s Health Coalition

UN Dispatch: Why is CSW focusing specifically on rural women this year?

The Commission on the Status of Women regularly adopts a multi-year program of work based on what is included in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for

The African Group – a regional negotiating bloc comprised of the 53 countries – advocated strongly for the CSW to consider this theme, given the high number of people living in rural areas on the continent and the fact that women living in rural areas face additional barriers to equality. In 2012, when this theme was last considered by the UN, member states were unable to reach an agreement on Agreed Conclusions, which is the set of recommendations for advancing women’s rights that the Commission adopts at each of its sessions.

UN Dispatch: How do you see CSW’s role within the larger United Nations strategy and position globally?

The CSW is a forum with participation from civil society and other groups. It’s a space for dialogue, sharing best practices and engagement between government and civil society groups.

But it is also a forum for setting global standards on women’s human rights through a process of intergovernmental negotiations.

Every year governments have a chance to show the world their commitment to women’s human rights and identify areas where they need to make progress. It’s a kind of annual check-up on the level of political support for women’s human rights globally.

UN Dispatch: What happens after CSW? How does the UN and other institutions take the resolutions and implement change?

Progress implementing the resolutions adopted by the CSW are generally reviewed by the Commission three years after their adoption. The resolutions also influence negotiations in other UN forums, like the Human Rights Council or the General Assembly, contributing to a set of global norms and standards on women’s rights. These norms and standards also influence the ways that human rights treaty bodies, who monitor implementation of international human rights treaties by countries, interpret human rights treaties and elaborate new standards.

UN Dispatch: How is progress measured in achieving CSW resolutions?

At the end of the day, success has to be measured at the country level. The resolutions and agreed conclusions adopted at the CSW can be powerful tools in the hands of women’s movements as they hold their governments accountable for gender equality and women’s rights.  For example, the organization Youth Champions Advocacy Nepal, one of the organizations we work with at the UN, use the Agreed Conclusions to push for policy change back home in Nepal. They have been successful in using them to push the Government to adopt legislation that ensures access to comprehensive sexuality education, as well as guarantee the right to sexual and reproductive health in their constitution.

UN Dispatch: Is there anything about this year’s CSW that you were particularly excited about?

We know that women and girls living in rural areas are among the most marginalized people in any country. Agreed Conclusions that recognize the human rights of women and girls in rural areas and recognize them as agents of change is important.

But, from the feminist movement perspective, one of the best things about CSW is the wide-range of advocates that come together each year. We have people from the environmental movement, trade unions, LGBTI rights, disabilities, indigenous, youth movement, sexual and reproductive rights activists that all work together to push our governments to achieve the strongest possible agreements. In a given year, we may see progress in one area and not in the other and so it’s important that we as the broader feminist movement celebrate progress wherever it comes, because we bring to CSW our intersectional analysis.

UN Dispatch: In your time being involved with CSW, how have you seen it change over the years? Do you think this change is productive?

Unfortunately, we have seen a massive influx of anti-human rights and anti-gender equality organizations occupying the space, blocking progress and spreading misinformation. Last year, for example, a European organization called Citizen Go brought their “hate bus” to the CSW. These groups have brought an intense polarization based on lies to some of the most important topics that the CSW should address, including sexual orientation and gender identity, sexual and reproductive rights, and child, early and forced marriage. This polarization is incredibly damaging at the CSW because it operates through consensus. The result is that on some key issues a small group of anti-human rights countries water down commitments to the lowest common denominator – they’re basically negotiating our human rights away.

That being said, we also have a fierce and diverse feminist movement that continues to come to the CSW year after year. We’re still able to see glimmers of progress year in and year out. Last year for example, we got recognition of the importance of just transitions in the context of climate change, which was a first at CSW. Every year I am inspired by my feminist colleagues who come from all across the world to New York in order to advance a progressive, intersectional feminist agenda.

UN Dispatch: Do you believe CSW is the best forum for achieving gender equality globally?

Gender equality isn’t achieved in a forum. It happens on the streets, in homes, in schools, in parliaments, in boardrooms, in fields and on farms, and because of the demands of women’s movements and everyday citizens to have governments respect, protect and fulfill their human rights.

The importance of the CSW is in setting norms and standards for countries and the UN bodies to achieve for women and girls and to which they can be held accountable. It is one piece – an important piece – of a much bigger global movement for women’s human rights.