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UN CSW65 2021, the challenge of working online and reaching consensus on women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life - Agreed Conclusions

The annual two-week UN Commission on the Status of Women, took place from 15-26 March 2021, in unprecedented circumstances as it was online and was a challenge for all involved. The theme of CSW65 was Women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.

The CSW brings together women activists from all over the world, women’s civil society organisations, ministers, governmental officials and policy-makers at every level, turning the world into a ‘village’. The absence of physical contact, networking and the general overall energising buzz, which this annual event usually generates, was sorely missed. It was also the first time that negotiations on the Agreed Conclusions - the main outcome document – were held online and while this proved challenging in the countdown to the final Agreement on 26 March 2021, conclusions were reached.

The online space also had its advantages as it enabled more participants to join without the financial burden of travelling to New York, and to participate in the different spaces, including parallel events (NGO led) and side events (government led). For the first time, the EWL was invited to be part of the EU delegation, a long-standing request that finally saw fruition.

The EWL also had a strong presence, as we co-organised with the Portuguese Presidency and the European Commission, a side event on ‘Gender Equality and Socio-Economic Consequences of the COVID-19 crisis. Building gender responsive emergency and recovery measures’ and was represented by Vice-President, Ana Sofia Fernandes. EWL Secretary General, Joanna Maycock, participated at the side event organised by Sweden and South Korea, on ‘Generating empowerment, empowering generations – delivering on women’s economic empowerment and rights’. The EWL was also on the speakers list of the inter-active dialogue on violence against women, but due to time constraints, did not get called. EWL’s main messages for these two weeks were the following:

  • we need a Care Deal for Europe, and across the world
  • recovery plans to the pandemic must be gender-responsive
  • strong action needs to be taken on the issue of Violence against Women and girls, through the ratification and implementation of the Istanbul Convention and a new EU directive on all forms of VAWG must be included in all decision-making spaces, including in the upcoming Future of Europe Conference, and all existing tools to achieve this goal should be used, such as the “Women on Boards” directive.

Agreed Conclusions

The nature of the online negotiations, led to at times difficult discussions in light of a push back from some countries, notably Russia, the Holy See and Cuba. The EU, who spoke with one voice, and with the support of the United States and the UK, made some strong commitments, regarding reaffirming commitments to the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA), CEDAW and other international conventions. In general, we are pleased to see that the pushback did not prevail.

However, while reference was made to ILO conventions (paragraph 61 of the Agreed Conclusions), we regret that Convention 190, relating to violence and harassment at work (2019) was not specially referenced which would have given impetus to Member States’ to ratify this. This was also an EU demand, and particularly relevant to the theme of the CSW65 on the elimination of violence.
Despite difficult discussions on this and other key issues, notably, the inclusion of the girl child, indigenous women and girls, human rights defenders and the concept of women’s human rights itself, these were finally included. But, we can only be reminded that women and girls rights are fragile and in the words of Simone de Beauvoir, we need to always remain vigilant.
The Advanced Unedited Version of the Agreed Conclusions of 26 March 2021 can be found here.

What next?

While the Agreed Conclusions are not legally binding, they represent a moral imperative for Member States to translate these into concrete actions. As the EU speaks with one voice, we wish to stress the importance of follow-up to these conclusions, which were negotiated and agreed as a block consisting of the 27 Member States. In particular, we draw attention to paragraph 61 that calls for actions under different headings. Some of the following sub paragraphs, provide additional arguments to move forward at EU level to achieve equality between women and men.

Strengthen normative, legal and regulatory frameworks
61 (j) Set specific targets and timelines to achieve gender balance in executive, legislative and judicial branches of government at all levels and in all areas, (…)

We believe that this recommendation provides the basis upon which the EU should now move ahead with the adoption of the Women on Boards Directive.

Prevent and eliminate violence against women in public life
61 (q) Enact or strengthen and enforce laws and policies to eliminate all forms of violence and harassment against women of all ages in the world of work, in public and private spheres, and provide means of effective redress in cases of noncompliance; (…)

61 (v) Take measures to create a safe and enabling environment so that women are protected from all forms of violence and discrimination for engaging in public life, including in digital contexts, (..)

61 (w) Mainstream a gender perspective in the conceptualization, development and implementation of digital technologies and related policies and promote the participation of women in order to address violence and discrimination against women and girls in digital contexts

These recommendations further strengthen calls for the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, the adoption of an EU Directive on violence against women and the inclusion of cyber and online violence against women in the Digital Services Act.

Strengthen gender-responsive institutional reforms
61 (x) Take measures to achieve gender balance in leadership positions in decision-making bodies at all levels, develop transformative approaches and changes in institutional structures and practices, and use the gender mainstreaming strategy to accelerate the implementation of legislation and public and fiscal policies, including, through gender-responsive budgeting for the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls;

61 (aa) Take account of the specific needs of women and girls in COVID-19 response and recovery efforts, and increase women’s leadership in those efforts, including through promoting gender balance in task forces, standing committees and other decision-making bodies; as well as promote the participation of members of women’s organizations in decision-making bodies and processes, as appropriate;

61 (bb) Develop COVID-19 pandemic response and recovery plans that promote sustainable development and drive transformative change towards inclusive and just societies by, inter alia, targeting women and girls, underlining that economic response, including poverty eradication measures, social assistance and protection, and fiscal and stimulus packages should be equally accessible to all, and specifically address the care sector, with measures taken to reduce and redistribute women’s and girls’ disproportionate share of unpaid care and domestic work, ensure equal pay for work of equal value for women, including in the public health sector; as well as take action to promote women’s entrepreneurship and strengthen women’s participation and leadership in economic activity;

These recommendations provide solid justification for gender mainstreaming in National Recovery Plans and gender budgeting, and in the EU context, in the Recovery and Resilience Facility, Next Generation EU and the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF, 2021-2027)

Strengthen women’s voice and leave no one behind in public life
Sub paragraphs 61 (tt) (yy) (zz) focus on the importance of care and shared responsibilities between women and men, and as such provide the basis for investing in a Care Deal for Europe and the monitoring of the transposition and implementation of the Work-Life-Balance Directive.

Sexual and Reproductive Health and Reproductive Rights

The Agreed Conclusions reaffirm the commitment to universal access to sexual and reproductive rights in accordance with the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the Beijing Platform for Action. The conclusions affirm “the human rights of women, to include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on all matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence, as a contribution to the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of women and the realization of their human rights;” (..) paragraph 61 (bbb)

Looking towards the future

The next physical meeting of the CSW is not foreseen before 2024. In preparation for CSW66 on the theme of the environment (Beijing Platform for Action, critical area of concern 11) and climate change, we need to be organised well in advance to shape our agenda on the online space. We thank all of the EWL members for their engagement in this year’s CSW and very much look forward to preparing and engaging in 2022. This ‘new online world’ offers new opportunities to do things differently to shape a feminist Europe.

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