CSW 57: 67 years on and the struggle continues

CSW 57: 67 years on and the struggle continues

Date: March 5, 2013
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New York, 5 March: In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir wrote in her book The Second Sex, “A man would never set out to write a book on the peculiar situation of the human male”. Likewise, a man would never set out to attend an annual commission on the status of men. Instead, almost every year since its birth in 1946, women from all parts of the world have been attending the United Nations Commission of the status of Women (CSW) to discuss their plight and to plan their continual fight for equality and justice.  Yesterday saw the start of the 57th session of CSW at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York.

As commendable and inspiring as this event is, it is simultaneously disillusioning knowing that 67 years later the discussions are much the same despite the small strides made across the globe in changing the lives of women. This event occurs within a context where all over the world, so many women are still victims of rape and gender based violence (GBV). Women are continually side-lined from politics and bear the brunt of economic and structural violence.

Today, 67 years on, browsing through BBC and The Sunday Times news while traveling from South Africa to New york, headlines read; “Amazon under fire for carrying ‘Keep calm and rape a lot’ T-shirts”. Another top story was the arrest of two people from Kent, England, in connection with a New York police officer accused of plotting to eat women. The Sunday Times also reported how the BBC has silenced women who spoke out one sexual harassment within the organisation and how British women are sliding behind when it comes to job positions and income.

Passing through immigration at JFK International Airport I squinted in an attempt to spot female immigration officers. I did not see any women, except those directing and ordering the queues of people. I had the fleeting thought of these ‘gatekeepers’, these men presiding over our entrance to attend this commission, and the men in general presiding over the entrance of women into economic freedom, political authority and bodily autonomy.

This thought turned to a visceral sensation when I witnessed a UN security guard literally and violently bark profanities at a woman posing to have her photo taken next to the iconic gold ball that adorns the UN entrance. She was obviously standing too close to be afforded a polite, “Mam, please don’t stand there”.

While standing in the long queue of women outside the UN buildings, shuffling about desperately trying to locate all my relevant admission documentation, I had another thought. If it is this bureaucratic and difficult to gain admission to this commission, I could almost guarantee, that those women, whose everyday lived reality of oppression, that we at the commission all aim to discuss and change, cannot attend. Only representatives of this mass, will speak on their behalf. I wondered to what degree it is just another top down discussion between officials and technocrats.

It was quite fitting then, that I attended two separate NGO panel discussions; one hosted by The National Union of Organizations Integrative Solidarity and Social Economy (UNIMOSS) visiting from Mexico and the other hosted by the Forum of Women’s NGOs of Kyrgyzstan. Both discussions looked at violence against rural and indigenous women in Latin America and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia.

According to the panellists, Latin America has the largest rural population of indigenous people in the world. Much like South Africa, its colonial past has structured inequality along racial and ethnic lines. This compounds and intersects with gender inequality, leaving indigenous and rural women vulnerable and marginalised, having little or no access to the economy, education, social services and land. Furthermore, most rural women have internalised their inferiority and oppression, believing that GBV is just a part of life.

The traditional roles acted out by men and women, together with their economic dependency, traps women in violent cycles. Although the rights are there in legislation, these laws do not reach the rural and indigenous areas. Economic development programs also fail to link to the economic violence in reality and their unpaid labour of child bearing and subsistence is not recognised.

Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia, like most rural communities in the world, has a very similar case. 60% of the population lives in rural areas and according to an article by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), 80% of marriages are a result of bride kidnapping. Economic dependency and illiteracy obstruct women from accessing and exercising their legal rights. On top of that, the judicial system is corrupt and the majority of law enforcement officers as well as advocates perceive bride kidnapping as a private family practice and not as a crime. However, activists and NGOs are working hard within rural communities to bring change.

Ainuru Altybaeva, gender activist and a member of Jogorku Kenesh in Parliament of Kyrgyzstan managed to convince parliament to amend criminal court legislation. The amendment increased the severity of punishment for bride kidnapping and has helped transfer the crime from the private into the public domain. Previously a person who stole a bride was sentenced to three to five years in prison, whereas a person who stole cattle would get 11 years. The law now also allows competent authorities to open cases of bride kidnapping and early marriage without the victim having to do so themselves.

In Brazil, the Ministry of Agrarian Development is working with rural communities to assist women in accessing land, and in 2007 government developed a policy to combat violence against women. NGOs in Mexico are doing a lot of outreach in rural communities to change mind-sets, economically empower women and to curb the crisis of micro credit debt that so many rural women have accumulated because of poverty.

The lobbying and empowerment at a grassroots level, where the lived experiences of rural and indigenous women are acknowledged, demonstrates the potential for change that can have ripple effects in not only their daily lives but also the structures that determine their lived experiences. As much as the need for CSW sadly remains, the global efforts to achieve gender equality are as determined as ever.

Perhaps these discussions will continue to inspire and inform gender activists so changes made from the top, actually help those at the bottom. Maybe in a decade or two, there will be no need for another commission, unless to praise those who press on positively.

Katherine Robinson is the communications manager for Gender Links. This article is part of GL’s special coverage of CSW 57.

0 thoughts on “CSW 57: 67 years on and the struggle continues”

Trevor Davies says:

Sound notes of caution in this article, I am looking forward to GL’s coverage of the CSW as it develops. How do we link the macro and the micro in the villages. One theme of this CSW is engaging with men, I hope it is fully explored!

Redges Muleya says:

Poverty has continued to play a role in accelerating Gender Based Violence in countries where the majority of their nationals especially women are not economically empowered.

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