UN Commission on the Status of Women: women’s rights post-pandemic

The Law Society attended the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UN-CSW) for the second consecutive year to continue supporting the realisation of women’s rights.

United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland

We attended the 65th UN-CSW in March 2021 against the backdrop of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the rampant increase in domestic violence.

This year, the 65th UN-CSW gathered over 5,000 representatives of member states, UN entities, and Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)-accredited non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

The Law Society has held special consultative status with the ECOSOC of the United Nations since 2014. Five members of our delegation attended over 30 sessions.

We also spoke at events, including one on the power of pro bono work in advancing gender equality organised by the International Action Network for Gender Equity & Law (IANGEL), where we highlighted the contribution of the legal profession.

The 65th CSW agreed conclusions and acknowledged how the pandemic has deepened pre-existing inequalities that perpetuate multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination as well as racism, stigmatisation and xenophobia.

Throughout this global conference, the message was clear: there cannot be sustainable development and peace without meaningful and full participation of women.

In the fight for a better future, everyone is responsible for gender equality because when women thrive, societies and economies also thrive.

COVID-19 and violence against women

The conference highlighted some positive transformations such as changes in the use of language when referring to women, from victims to survivors.

However, the pandemic has brought many challenges as numerous governments have introduced draconian legislation with limited oversight, to control freedom of movement.

Some jurisdictions have taken advantage of this time of emergency to adopt coercive laws.

Women have continued to be marginalised and, as lockdowns continue, an upsurge of sexual and gender-based violence has been reported.

There is a danger of reversing the investment of past decades, putting an entire generation of progress on gender equality at risk. It’s therefore imperative to adopt an internationally agreed programme to prevent future marginalisation in times of crisis.

Social media and protecting the planet

It's been noted that a rising form of violence is that subtly exercised via the relatively new phenomenon of social media. Due to lack of regulation, social platforms can be easily infiltrated and weaponised, putting women – particularly human rights defenders (HRDs) – in critical danger.

Currently, environmental HRDs are being unfairly labelled as ‘anti-development’ or ‘anti-nationalist’. This has gained traction as a result of fake news.

Evidence shows that environmental HRDs are three times more likely to be assaulted than other HRDs, so they are facing extreme risk.

Environmental education is key to addressing this type of violence. 

A civil society initiative has been proposed to help counter the issue. This would amend international statutes to include ‘ecocide’ as a criminal environmental offence that can be handled by international judicial mechanisms. Several countries have expressed their support for this plan. Such initiatives ensure accountability for greater protection of people and the planet.

Governments must also be more proactive in safeguarding HRDs through information and evidence before dismissing their complaints, so that companies that are facilitating any type of violence against HRDs can be held to account.

The power of the digital world

Harnessing the power of the digital world to solve problems like this is vital.

There is a strong link between economic empowerment, and the ability to live a life with freedom of choice and freedom from violence.

Investing in upskilling women, creating special programmes for women (such as gender responsive procurement) and providing access to economic opportunities can ensure women do not face barriers in access to credit and resources.

Establishing private-sector partners and encouraging them to look at their businesses through a female lens can lead to greater coordination and multilateral efforts to tackle the root causes of gender-based violence.

These multi-sectoral approaches can help ensure that a steady share of resources and funding are in place to meet the demand.

Women in the political sphere

If governments also make efforts to increase the number of women in decision-making positions and adopt quotas as a successful measure to ensure equal representation, we can begin addressing the gender issue from the top down.

Multiple studies have illustrated the importance of seeing role models in the public sector.

It’s vital to include women in order to reduce the level of violence and intimidation experienced when women try to participate fully in politics and other sectors.

COVID-19 response

A recovery policy survey of 187 countries assessed COVID-19 responses using 1300 measures, such as whether they:

  • were gender sensitive
  • supported unpaid care
  • strengthened women’s security
  • supported women’s participation
  • addressed gender-based violence

Only 42 (19%) of the countries analysed had a holistic response. This means that, as we stand today, the bulk of the global response to COVID-19 has been gender blind.

But the gender issue is both a male and female problem. Stereotypes, bias and discriminatory social norms detrimentally impact society.

Prevailing stereotypes in society have made it harder for men to take paternity leave or be stay-at-home fathers, while women continue to face discrimination and motherhood penalties as a result of damaging labels.

The language of discrimination and traditional mindsets is still very pervasive; statements such as “you will change when you have a child,” assume women’s ambitions and passions disappear after becoming a mother.

Society needs to encourage the transition away from toxic masculinity that affects both men and women.

According to the OECD’s latest report, Man Enough? Measuring Masculine Norms to Promote Women’s Empowerment, 10 norms of restrictive masculinity need to be urgently addressed within the political, economic and private spheres.

The implementation of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda can also be complex and multi-dimensional, but women have yet to enjoy greater protection and safety, or equal access to justice.

National action plans (NAPs) are an important vehicle for the advancement of this WPS agenda, but so far governments have been slow to adopt and implement them.

Governments could easily adopt a centralised system for NAPs that is intersectional and inclusive.

In most global conflicts, gender issues remain at the centre. Therefore, through addressing gender issues, we also reduce global conflict and damage to the fabric of society.

Governments, the private sector and donors have a key role to play in acknowledging women’s rights organisations as vital members of civil society for an effective and coordinated pandemic response.

Innovative policy

In 2014, Sweden was the first country to propose a new approach to foreign policy: the feminist foreign policy. It intends to help build more just and prosperous societies by having women and girls at the centre.

Swedish ambassador Ann Bernes argued that “feminism is something that not many people know about, but everyone has an opinion on”.

Several countries have joined this initiative, but the UK is yet to take up a feminist foreign policy.

Conclusion

Societal issues cannot be solved with one answer, or one solution. The problems are widespread and are everyone’s responsibility.

Solutions must start both top down (with governments) and bottom up at home and in schools.

We need male partners who are not threatened by professional women and we need leaders to do better.

The global community is more equipped than ever to use the political strategies and technical solutions that have worked in the past to translate evidence and practice-based learning into collective action.

More investment is needed to support real action in the effective integration of gender policies for dismantling the patriarchy to achieve more equal societies.

UN Women state we are in a period of great change for women, and the rule of law supports this change through enabling everyone to be a key player in improving the societies we create.

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