First Person: The 58th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women

Op-ed originally published on The Huffington Post. For the full article, please click here.

Capture1233 April 2014 – For two weeks last month, women’s groups from across the world met in New York to discuss what 21st century international development has done for women at the 58th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). In one of the lighter moments of the discussions, the CSW Twitter feed joined in with social media trend of “throwback Thursday,” sharing wonderful images of the inspirational women who have attended these meetings since they began in 1946. For many of us delegates, this nostalgia was bittersweet, feeling as we did that far too much effort was being spent fighting battles we thought our predecessors had already won.

The session took as its theme reflection on the challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the eight headings that have defined the vocabulary of international development over the first 15 years of the new century. Sadly, a consistent thread throughout the event was an unholy alliance of conservative countries trying to undo the progressive consensus on women’s rights that the UN, governments and NGOs have worked towards through the MDGs, trying to chip away at everything from health and reproductive rights to the universal nature of women’s rights.

Nations with little else in common but an acute cultural and religious conservatism — including countries such as Iran, Malta, Pakistan, Djibouti and the Holy See — frequently took it upon themselves to attempt to water down resolutions and talk down the role that women’s movements have played in promoting gender equality.

This atmosphere made the negotiation of the Agreed Conclusions, the 24-page final declaration and outcome of the two-week meeting of the CSW, a process that was not only exhausting — talks went on until 4 a.m. on the penultimate day of the session — but at times the wheeling and dealing on rights that many of us thought secure was nothing less than nasty.

The final document, while lauded for reaffirming the gains women made at 1995’s UN conference in Beijing, was also limited by countries expressing reservations on a number of issues. Malta, Pakistan, Qatar and the Holy See all noted their reservations with regard to the conclusions on sex education, while the Qataris also quibbled on the wording of a call to eliminate early marriage. Several conservative African nations argued that women’s rights should be replaced with the terms “women’s empowerment,” arguing that the Millennium Development Goals are a development issue, not a human rights issue.

Despite this — often painful — process many delegates distinguished themselves in the negotiations. I pay particular tribute to tireless work of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and her colleagues at UN Women. Their work made sure that we saw a positive outcome for the Agreed Conclusions.

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