This is the fifth part of a series of blogposts from our engagement with the 62nd Commission on the Status of Women (#CSW62) taking place at the UN headquarters in New York City. Read the first part here, second part here, third part here, and the fourth part here.
The first week of the 62nd Commission on the Status of Women was filled with exciting side events taking place outside of the UN building, and general discussions by member states within the UN building.
The discourses outside of the room discussed in depth the barriers faced by women and girls in many intersecting contexts, as well as networking and organising and supporting initiatives to push through these challenges. Whether the issues were LGBTIQ rights, sex worker organising, member states cracking down on women’s rights organisations, devastating consequences of war, normalisation of sexual violence, land grab by corporations and unfair trade agreements and their impact on women, there was great energy and enthusiasm in discussing these critical issues, which are major parts of the realities of women, both in rural and urban settings, and everywhere in between.
These discussions on the outside takes a very different shape from the discussions taking place within the UN by the member states. Tired arguments of progress made with regards to gender equality were thrown about with an almost reckless abandon, not taking into account the nuanced and complex lived realities of women’s lives. The disconnect between the narrative pushed inside the building was clear when they talk of women’s access to land and land rights, without being cognisant of their own policies enabling land grabs at country level; and when they talk about enabling women’s access to markets through ICT, without recognising the inequalities women face in the workplace (gender pay gap comes to mind). The principles that member states espoused were laudable (and belonged to the era of Beijing and Cairo i.e. the early 90s), but it is still sadly far removed from womens’ lived realities in current times.
The frame of economic empowerment was one that was universally supported and enunciated by all member states, and yet their narratives and reporting was virtually unchallenged despite numerous UN and government reports on how markets themselves seem to be structured to perpetuate and exploit economic inequality. It is impossible to ensure women’s equality through a process and mechanism which is biased against the poor. Moreover, there was lesser interrogation that work and employment in many developing countries involves women doing rote jobs, for long hours, for very little pay, for little or no social protection, in unsafe working conditions, and at risk of sexual violence and harassment. How is that empowerment? And how can we make those circumstances better for women and where are we currently failing?
On the streets of New York, on the very same day, the farmworkers coalitions organised themselves and marched through the streets of New York calling for a strike on Wendy’s. Farmworker women have endured sexual violence and harassment in the fields, and from 2011, the Fair Food Programme harnessed the purchasing power of more than a dozen of the world’s largest retail food companies – including all of the major fast-food brands – except Wendy’s. There are hard questions here directed at the conscience of consumers; where did my meal come from today? Who cultivated the food, who picked the food, who delivered the food and in what circumstances was this done? These questions are the ones that will ground any discourses on gender equality, women’s rights and rural development, and they’re the ones we need to collectively ask ourselves.
Similarly, within the hallowed halls of the UN, member states talked about women and girls as victims of the war on Syria without acknowledging or holding to account their peers who have been repeatedly engaging in military assault and destruction of the country. The silence and inaction construe complicity.
What will it take for governments to enact change for women where it really matters? At the very least, they seem to have the willpower and the courage to speak on behalf of women; rhetorics of positive changes, equality and development, and they have certainly done so in this venerable venue.
Meanwhile, women around the world are taking to the streets, continuing to demand what is rightfully theirs.