What Happened at the UN Commission on the Status of Women This Year?

The Commission on the Status of Women concludes this week at the United Nations. The CSW, as it is known, is one of the major annual events at UN headquarters. In terms of sheer size and number of participants it is second only to the opening of the UN General Assembly in September. But unlike UNGA, it rarely gets much media attention, at least not the kind of attention commensurate for a diplomatic gathering of its size. This year, it got almost no media write ups in any major english language outlet. For such a key conference, it really flies under the radar.

Joining me to explain the key debates and discussions from the 68th Commission on the Status of Women is Michelle Milford Morse, Vice President for Girls and Women Strategy at the United Nations Foundation. We kick off with a long conversation about the unique diplomatic dynamic surrounding international debates and discussions on gender equality, including why after years of progress, advocates for gender equality are now playing defense. We then discuss some of the items that were on the agenda at CSW this year.

The podcast interview is freely available across all podcast listening platforms. Go here to have a listen. An excerpt of our conversation is below. The full transcript is available immediately for newsletter subscribers.

Mark Leon Goldberg: I know you are a veteran of many CSWs. And before we get into the substance of what happened at the Commission on the Status of Women this year, I’m interested in just broadly getting a sense for you the vibe or mood this year compared to that of years’ past? And based on your answer to my previous question, I take it not all that great!

Michelle Milford Morse: There’s an interesting bifurcation of feeling that happens here in New York. On the one hand, you have this incredible, joyful, flourishing of solidarity among women and men, people of all kinds and from all places who believe in the promise of equality. And they gather here, I believe that this, and we don’t have all the official numbers yet, but we have anecdotal reports that we have the largest number of registrants to this conference ever.

Mark: Which is significant because you’re talking about big numbers here.

Michelle: Significant numbers. And I know the NGO forum was packed; the side events are packed; the sidewalks around here are packed. So, that is one element of this. This is considered a really joyful moment in a lot of ways for our movement because we are together. We are reminded that we are not alone. In fact, we are reminded that we are the majority. Most people in the world, fair-minded women and men in all their diversity want equality and justice for all. And this is one of the places where we gather and express that and defend it. So that is one thing that is wonderful about CSW and what makes it a moment that I look forward to every year.

But then there is this other part of it, which is that advocates, activists are showing up from all over the world and from places where we are experiencing real pushback against gender equality. And there is pushback in their home countries, there’s pushback inside the UN, and so that is the part that makes this a frustrating moment. So, there is joy, there’s also frustration, there’s also impatience. It is called CSW68. We’ve been at this for 68 years. One would hope that would mean that every year we push further and further and claim more rightful equal space at the negotiating table, equal protection under the law, equal roles and economies and societies and politics. But that’s not what’s happening. And so there is joy, but there’s deep impatience.

Mark: So, I wanted to talk to you about that pushback. It has been the case over the last decade or so that platforms like the CSW have become a gathering place for NGOs and other movements that are opposed to those very rights. We are seeing growing participation by socially and religiously conservative organizations that seek to halt progress towards broader goals around gender equality. How did you see that dynamic manifest itself this year?

Go here to get the full transcript.