Reflections from the NGO delegates on the Australian government delegation to the 60th Commission on the Status of Women.

Reflections on the 60th Commission on the Status of Women - NGO Delegate, Sarah Boyd 

NGO Delegate, Australian Government Delegation to the Commission on the Status of Women.

A desire to be a more effective feminist women’s rights advocate, activist, policy adviser and policy maker first led me to the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Learning new advocacy and negotiation strategies as a civil society delegate representing the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) at the 57th, 58th and 59th Sessions of the CSW were transformative experiences. It was thus an honour and an extraordinary privilege to attend CSW 60 as one of the NGO delegates, alongside Dr Anu Mundkur, to work with and support the government’s delegation and Australia’s participation and engagement at CSW 60.


The priority theme for the 60th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was ‘women’s empowerment and the link to sustainable development’ and the review theme on ‘the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women’ (following the agreed conclusions of CSW57).


I was proud to be part of a delegation which continued a historically strong and progressive role in working to advance the global normative frameworks to advance women’s human rights and gender equality, and who works constructively with other Member States to achieve this. Australia is one of the few delegations that resources and prioritises civil society delegates as part of an official delegation. In the context of global restrictions and a shrinking of space for direct civil society engagement in human rights fora, including CSW, this is a critical policy space to both maintain and an opportunity to demonstrate leadership in expanding.


The Global Goals: Transforming the role of the CSW

Agreed in 2015, the 2030 Agenda set the globally agreed road map for the planet. This includes global agreements on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (a set of 17 goals and 169 targets) and development finance as articulated in the Addis Ababa Action Agenda. As the UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, highlighted in her opening speech to the 60th CSW, this new bold, ambitious and transformative agenda demands that there can be no more ‘business as usual’.  The full achievement of women’s human rights and gender equality is critical for fulfilling these agreements and to meet these goals. The structural inequalities that the women’s rights movement seeks to transform present the greatest impediment to the 2030 Agenda’s achievement.


Gender equality and the 2030 Agenda: No more ‘business as usual.’

The 60th CSW was a critical meeting, and process, for many reasons. Firstly, it was first real test of the 2030 Agenda and Member State’s commitments to gender equality. As the focus of CSW60 was on implementation of the 2030 Agenda, it was a test of States’ political will and ability to ensure gender equality was both at the heart of the 2030 Agenda, whilst also committing to integrate it systematically across the whole agenda.  Secondly, as the 2030 Agenda is universal, it applies to developed and developing countries. This has created a new dynamic and a broader range of stakeholders for many Member States to engage with, including for Australia.


The ‘no more business as usual’ approach presents a momentous opportunity. An opportunity to to revitalise the Commission as the preeminent forum for international dialogue to advance gender equality on women’s and girls’ empowerment and human rights. Further, an opportunity to ensure the CSW plays a central role in the follow up and review of SDGs as a whole - not just Goal 5 – as well as its continuing role in the review of Beijing Platform for Action.


The Agreed Conclusions

Despite difficult negotiations and being strongly contested, the agreed conclusions

did provide a progressive and positive commitment to implement and monitor progress of the gender equality compact contained in the entire 2030 Agenda in conjunction with the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

The agreed conclusions contained key language advancements on:

  • multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, the rights of indigenous women, on women’s roles and addressing gender issues in the context of combatting climate change, in the women, peace and security agenda, in humanitarian action, in relation to migrants and refugees and in combatting violent extremism, as well as the independent participation of national human rights institutions.
  • strong references to civil society: including women human rights defenders, a recognition of the importance of inclusive and transparent engagement with civil society in order to achieve a ‘gender-responsive implementation’ of the 2030 Agenda, and the need to create safe and enabling environments for civil society.


Australian Civil Society at CSW60

CSW60 witnessed the broadening and deepening participation of Australian civil society - an exciting and hopeful development. The interest and participation from broader networks covering domestic as well as international policy issues included a interest from networks of young activists, faith based groups, development agencies, trade union officials and the private sector, and actors working to end violence against women both domestically and internationally. The inaugural CSW Youth Forum held prior to the start of CSW60 was a resounding success, with a number of young Australian women playing an active role in the design and hosting of the Forum.


An invigorated role for civil society

As NGO delegates, Dr Anu Mundkur and I attended official sessions of the CSW as representatives of the Australian delegation, side events hosted by Australia and other Member States, civil society led parallel events, and a huge array of events, meetings and caucuses surrounding the Commission. Further to attending and reporting back on these events, as NGO delegates we provided policy advice and support to the delegation as we collectively navigate the post 2030 Agenda world.

As NGO Delegates, we facilitated communication between national, regional and international networks and contributed knowledge and expertise to the delegation (in particular relating to women, peace and security, humanitarian action as well as data and indicators). Further, we engaged in advocacy across thematic-based networks and regional caucuses throughout the text negotiations of the agreed conclusions. We provided space for civil society delegates to engage with the government delegation, to engage on substantive policy issues, to facilitate connections between the domestic, Asia-Pacific regional and international agendas, and to highlight the work of Australian individuals, organisations and networks to help inform the government’s positions and negotiations.

At CSW60, this included supporting the work of the Australian Human Rights Commission and the government delegation to advocate for advancing the independent participation rights of human rights commissions at CSW. This also included a particular focus on ensuring the voices and policy issues of indigenous Australian women, young women, women living with disability and issues of sexual orientation and gender identity were heard in the agreed conclusions process. Supporting Pacific participation, we also supported the platforms for women from the Asia-Pacific to engage with the delegation and support their collective strategy and advocacy formulation. As NGO delegates, we work to ensure the rights holders (civil society) can access platforms to engage with Member States (duty bearers) to discus, debate and hold States accountable in upholding their human rights obligations.

To reflect this transforming, deepening and broadening role of and for Australian civil society, in preparation for CSW60 a new innovation was the development of a dedicated website resource for Australian civil society, as well as a dedicated Facebook page, Twitter hashtag (#CSW60Aus). The website will be a continuing resource to support the ongoing processes aimed at that Australian government and civil society engagement in the SDGs into the future is gender responsive.


The personal is the political

The CSW truly is a site where the personal is the political. The everyday lived experiences of women, from Australia to Bangladesh and from Yemen to Zimbabwe, is deeply political. CSW is a contested space. On the one hand, Member States work together to advance normative frameworks to advance women’s rights (in this case, the gender responsive implementation of Agenda 2030 and the SDGs). On the other hand, the politics and policies of regressive governments plays out at the expense of women’s control over their own rights and bodies - in particular our sexuality and reproductive rights. The politics of trading away women’s rights is hard to bear witness to when CSW is a space for regressive governments to advance their own political and religious agendas.

At the same time, civil society act as advisers: speaking truth to power, providing policy analysis and an evidence base, advising governments and keeping States accountable. At CSW, there are countless examples - from women in northern Iraq sharing their experiences of running shelters and providing access to justice for women experiencing violence; to women from the Marshall Islands and Kiribati sharing lessons from their work mitigating climate change and developing early warning systems; to women from Tunisia sharing their experiences of conflict prevention and countering violent extremism; to Filipino women sharing their experiences and strategies for effective conflict mediation, negotiation and resolution to end armed conflict.

The personal truly is the political. After midnight one evening during the agreed conclusions negotiations, a Member State held up the agreement on a particular operative paragraph. They actively prevented, using many negotiations strategies, their regional ‘bloc’ of like minded countries to recognise the role and particular risks and threats of violence for women’s human rights defenders. At the very moment this was taking place, twitter updates filled negotiators twitter feeds with evidence that the government of that same UN Member State was committing human rights abuses in their country – splashed across international news – in particular arbitrarily arresting and targeting women’s human rights defenders. Women’s rights are contested; and CSW is a contested space.


Although contested, CSW is a space for connection  

CSW is also a site of (re)connection. Meeting, reconnecting, listening, sharing and strategising with feminist activists from around the world is a reminder of the strength and power of the transnational and intergenerational feminist movement and process. Listening to and meeting researchers, academics, activists, human rights defenders and policy makers from around the world, and forging new personal and professional friendships and networks, is transformational.

The discussions within UN headquarters most often feel a world away from the UN Church Centre on the other side of First Avenue.  It is an extraordinary opportunity and privilege to hold the correctly lettered and coloured pass to travel between these worlds, from parallel events and informal gatherings discussing joint advocacy strategies, into the agreed conclusions negotiating room. As an NGO delegate on the Australian government delegation, I am grateful not only for being able to be ‘in the room’, but to learn, listen and practice the strategies that will enable us all to bridge the gaps between the conversations, between duty bearers and rights holders, and to work collectively towards a more peaceful, just and equal world. We already have the roadmaps to do so. 

I would like to thank the Australian government for this extraordinary, rare and unique opportunity and insight. Following CSW60, I am further compelled to carry forth the lessons and experience to advance women’s human rights in Australia and around the world. I am compelled to challenge the reality that negotiations over women’s rights will always be difficult and protracted and that there will always be an expectation of a ‘traditional suite of controversial issues.’ To do so, the strengthening and support of a strong civil society remains critical. The solutions to countering all forms of violence and addressing patriarchal and structural inequalities that will prevent us from achieving Agenda 2030 and the Global Goals roadmap – globally and in Australia – critically requires and demands a strong feminist civil society.