Reflection alone will not change women?s status

Date: January 1, 1970
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African women?s annual trip to New York for the UN Commission on the Status of Women needs to provide more than a space for get-togethers and the sharing of experiences.

Contrary to popular belief, when dozens of African women’s organizations and teams of official negotiators land in New York for the annual session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), they do more than shop.

African women participate in the experts’ group meetings; they participate in the official negotiating teams; and they participate in civil society advocacy and lobbying efforts to ensure that the concerns of the continent’s women – as well as strategies, challenges and recommendations thereof – are reflected in the CSW’s final documents.

Established in 1946 as a functional commission of the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the CSW’s original mandate was to prepare recommendations and reports for ECOSOC on the promotion of women’s rights.

Following the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China, the CSW was mandated to monitor implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action by regularly reviewing its critical areas of concern.

The value of the formal negotiations, however, is increasingly questioned, because the agreed conclusions are not, strictly speaking, binding on governments. The conclusions proceed to the ECOSOC, where, if passed, they are assumed to trickle down through the UN system, as well as into the behavior and work of national gender machineries.

But in reality, little reference is made to the CSW’s agreed conclusions by either African governments or civil society following the sessions.

A major challenge is the lack of a sustainable coordination mechanism or process for African women, whether in government or not, to prepare for the CSW in advance; to engage with one another and to lobby collectively while at the CSW; and, to follow up on commitments after the New York sessions.

From the government side, more use could and should be made of the Africa Group, which comprises all African member states at the UN.  This group is a recognized negotiating bloc during intergovernmental policy negotiations such as those at the CSW.

Civil society on the other hand, should make more use of the African Women’s Caucus. This grouping tries to ensure that those African women’s organizations present during the CSW are organized so as to effectively influence the global civil society lobby and the formal process.

Also, the UN’s Division for the Advancement of Women has recently made conscious efforts to improve civil society’s participation in the CSW. Prior to the sessions, civil society can submit statements for inclusion in the official documentation, and it can submit communications regarding the conduct of individual member states. The Experts’ Group Meetings, high-level roundtables, and the debates that follow, are all open to civil society.

So what is gained annually in New York? Governments gain the opportunity to interact with their peers from across the region and beyond. Civil society gains the same. There is no way to quantify the value of this interaction.

African gender machineries and women’s organizations rarely have the opportunity to come together across the region to share experiences, to debate where we have come from and where we want to go. Neither do we often have the opportunity to hear the debates on the struggle for gender equality in other regions and to formulate from those debates a global consensus. The CSW provides African women with that space.

But, as we move into the 10-year review of the Beijing Platform for Action, perhaps we need to focus on the fact that ensuring the implementation of the commitments made in the Beijing Platform is not solely dependent on our collective creativity and inspiration.

What is needed is for Africa to make the CSW’s work worth the energy, money and time its sessions costs us, beyond just providing us with the space to reflect collectively.

L. Muthoni Wanyeki is the Executive Director of the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET).

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events. for more information.

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