I was honoured to attend the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the UN in New York last month. The CSW is the principle global body dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the advancement of women’s rights. Its annual two-week session provides an opportunity for states, NGOs and other partners to evaluate progress. This presents an opportunity to identify challenges, set global standards and formulate concrete policies.
The primary focus of this year’s session was the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. This is the document which has served as the blueprint for the promotion of women’s human rights for the past 20 years. In 1995, 17,000 participants and 30,000 activists from around the world gathered in Beijing for the Fourth World Conference on Women. Their aim was to promote the equality and empowerment of women everywhere by coming up with a framework for national and international gender equality practices. The culmination of their work was arguably the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing the human rights of women and girls.
To mark the anniversary, a new political declaration was adopted by the Commission which sought to take stock of progress so far and set out a vision for the coming years.
Since 1995, progress has been made on a number of fronts. But it has been slow and uneven.
In education, for example, women now outnumber men in tertiary education in Europe, although patterns of segregation remain. By contrast, only 51% of women in developing countries can read and write.
The Beijing Platform called on states to take integrated measures to prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls, to conduct research into its causes and consequences and to eliminate trafficking of women and girls. Yet, EU-wide studies have suggested that as many as 1 in 3 women have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15. Many Member States, including the UK, have still not ratified the Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women and girls. We must commit more resources to this problem as a matter of urgency. The issue of trafficking is a priority in my own work as a member of the Committee for Women’s Rights and Gender Equality in the European Parliament.
This year’s session also addressed the issue of international development and assessment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) – a set of time-bound targets to mobilise international action on poverty reduction. MDG3 which focused on gender equality has been widely criticised for its narrow focus. For example, it did not mention violence against women, wage discrimination or sexual and reproductive rights.
If we are to galvanise transformative change, the Sustainable Development Goals, which replace the MDGs, will have to address a number of key issues. Feedback from countries all around the world has shown that financing for gender equality has been inadequate across the board. At the national and international level, we need to push for the necessary funds as well as mechanisms for holding governments to account on their records. Following the global financial crisis, funding has dwindled. In the UK for example, equality bodies have faced drastic cuts and have had their capacity significantly reduced as a result. Investment in gender equality is a prerequisite for sustainable and prosperous societies and economies. Equality between women and men therefore needs to be at the forefront of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Finally, the underrepresentation of women at all levels of decision-making is hindering progress for gender equality in all areas. We have witnessed substantial progress in women’s access to electoral office but in the overwhelming majority of governments worldwide, there is still no gender parity. A range of measures have been successful in facilitating women’s pathways to power – not least electoral quotas which I have strongly advocated for. Women’s groups and activists have also played a crucial role in addressing the marginalisation of women in public life. To fulfil the promise of human rights – in health, education, eliminating poverty, eradicating violence – we will need the full participation and leadership of women.