The 57th meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women met in New York from 4th to 15th March. This year the major theme was the ‘Elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women’. Chat Garcia Ramilo and Jan Moolman from the Association for Progressive Communications’ Women’s Rights Programme were there, and spoke to Sonia Randhawa about what the CSW is, why it is important and some of the major discussions that took place.

Sonia Randhawa: Is the CSW still a relevant and important framework for the influencing women’s rights on the ground, and why?

Chat Garcia Ramilo (CGR): Number one, according to the UN, the CSW is the second biggest of all the meetings, second to the General Assembly every year, in terms of the number of countries and governments attending. This is an important indication of interest: governments come to the meetings every year, there are a lot of women’s organisations attending, if you look at the side events around the CSW, which are much larger than the formal meeting itself, there are all sorts of issues, and increasing private sector participation. Women’s rights organisations still see the CSW as a forum to amplify their issues; to meet people and policy-makers and to network, that is quite evident still. These things make a difference on the ground. In the Philippines, for example, the organisations who were not part of the government delegation were really grassroots organisations. They have been organising to tell other organisations that weren’t here what happened, so they obviously still find it relevant.

Jan Moolman (JM): For me it is mixed, the UN as an institution is much weaker than it has been and I think that this is recognised by many women’s rights organisations. I also think that the form of organising that happens in the world around women’s rights is also shifting, being localised and through specific social movements, which is important to recognise especially when talking of the UN as a weakened system. At the same time, the opportunity for women’s organisations to really engage in some ways with the governments that are there and hold them to account is vital. Depending on the kind of work that organisations are doing, it can have an influence on the ground.

SR: What were the major issues raised and discussed at this year’s events? What was missing from the table?

JM: The major issue that came up repeatedly was working with men and boys, which is not new, but what was striking is that this was being discussed as the panacea to VAW and for me that was quite troubling. For example, the South African government delegation has two members of a men’s movement on the official delegation, which indicates the importance with which South Africa at least takes this approach. There were also a lot of side events organised by men’s organisations.

The other things that were raised consistently were around gender identity and sexual orientation. Unfortunately, the consequence was that there has been a watering down of the language, because of the desire to have agreed conclusions, and strategically, for me, that was not the best approach.

The last thing for me, which as a Catholic I found quite shocking, was the position of the Holy See on intimate partner violence, arguing that there is no such thing as violence within marriage, which came up in a side event. Their position is that because marriage is a sacrament, a holy partnership, people who partake of this union do so spiritually. The Holy See has apparently got research that shows that violence within marriage is much lower than in relationships that are not part of the sacrament. One participant said to Chat and I that this language just shuts down discussion and is in itself problematic. She felt violated having to listen to this, which I can relate to.

For me, it defies all logic, all three of these issues, how can we still be having these discussions in 2013?

CGR: Some of the most contentious debates were around definitions of VAW and intimate partner violence. Other than sexual identity and sexual orientation, which was hotly debated, another area that was contested was the definition of racial minorities. A lot of conservative governments were trying to keep to language that was there in the draft documents, trying to disagree with or objecting to the introduction of new language, so even things like intersectionality were being questioned. Thus, expanding the definition of VAW in itself was contentious, and that’s where sexual identity came in, where women human rights defenders (WHRDs) came in. Advocates were saying that there is particular violence that WHRDs face, so that should be included in the discussion. There were these issues where there is new evidence or where new developments are happening so we really should include them in terms of prevention strategies, in prevention and in the multisectoral responses to VAW.

JM: And to add, there was quite a lot of discussion on the post 2015 development framework and how VAW can be incorporated into this framework, particularly in terms of the shortcomings of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

SR: What were the most important decisions taken, or decisions that were NOT taken, also why?

CGR: Well, the main thing is that there WAS an outcome, that there was a document, which was such a big thing this year, because last year there were no outcomes, no agreed conclusions, so from the very beginning that was the concern. Governments said women’s rights organisations are watching, and watching the agreed conclusions, so in a way that was good, but then the criticisms, the watering down or the negotiations that happened… there were some states that some called ‘rogue states’, who were not going to back down on certain things. For example, Russia was not going to back down on racial minorities, it wanted national minorities. And many states were adamant on excluding sexual orientation. So we started with agreed conclusions that were draft, there was a lot of excitement on sexual identity, WHRDs, sexual and reproductive rights, including language that we advocated for on ICTs and VAW, but throughout the negotiations, it really took a while to have that agreement. There was some conciliation for agreed conclusions to happen. The Centre for Women’s Global Leadership came out with a really good summary of the concerns.

JM: Speaking to people once the CSW was over, people were talking about the ‘unholy alliance’ of Russia, Syria, Egypt, Iran and some states in Africa who were speaking as a bloc. For me that was interesting, because South Africa is seen as one of the states really pushing for issues such as sexual orientation and gender identity, but because they were speaking as an African bloc, we didn’t hear much from them. And the issues that this unholy alliance have been campaigning against are on sexual orientation, gender identity and sexual and reproductive health rights.

I think something that was really good and related to our work was the inclusion of language on WHRDs. So now that the agreed conclusions specifically mention the need for states to take action on supporting and protecting those who are involved in ending VAW, including WHRDS, which is significant, particularly given the strategy of not including new language.

CGR: This relates to how important the CSW is – while a lot of women’s rights organisations still engage with it, it is seen as a forum that is becoming more and more ineffective because of the debates that are happening and because of the behaviour of some states. There is this dilemma – we need to engage this forum and these states, so we don’t go backwards, but at the same time… it really is a space where you can just wring your hands, where there are states saying all sorts of things, but if you leave it like that, you’ll have agreements that bring the language backwards. And until some of the states can behave in a way that is constructive, there will be some differences in terms of how blocs are formed, how they speak, that is how it will work more and more, so there are fears that it will not be as dynamic an institution, that it will become a difficult space to work in.

SR: Is there any shift in the awareness of women decision makers in their engagement with ICTs? Was there any discussion of the gender dimensions of ICTs and how were these discussions received?

JM: The first thing was that it was much easier to talk about the relationship between violence and technology than it had been in the past, more people were listening and I think this was for two reasons. Partly it is because countries have had some experience, so it is no longer a really fringe issue (though still on the fringes!). There is a lot more awareness, particularly for some countries. When countries were making inputs into the draft documents, it was clear that there were a number of countries raising these kinds of issues and I think that was very significant.

The other thing that was interesting was that countries are looking for leadership on these issues, so Ghana, for example, was looking at the issue of sexting and young people, and in a government side event hosted by the South African government, they specifically asked for advice. The response was that they have a project looking at child pornography – in response to a question about sexting. That was worrying, because it shows not only a lack of understanding on what the issues are, but it shows this anxiety around technology and sexuality. It made me think we need to do much more work with governments, and policy-makers nationally, in a very practical way. We need to lay out that these are what the issues are, this is how it works, pointing out that not everything is the same. They think ‘young people, technology, sexting – that equals pornography’. And that isn’t how technology is implicated in VAW now, so we need to do a lot more work.

CGR: The most important thing is really what Jan is saying, both NGOs and states raised this as an issue of concern. I attended an event organised by Denmark, and there a woman was speaking about issues, about the basics, the issues we’ve been raising like cyberstalking, that there is a lot of concern. Also speaking was a minister from the UK. She said the sexist, misogynistic viciousness to women in government is shocking, and it is not because people have a complaint that is the problem, but that the women are attacked in a sexist, misogynist way. It doesn’t matter what position you are in, this is what happens. So it is clear that at least women in government recognise this problem.

In the negotiations themselves, the language we negotiated through the Philippine government was very well received. I was in all the discussions with that particular language, every one said it was great and so you had the US, Canada, the Holy See all favouring it. Their concerns were, first, while there is recognition that this is happening, the idea is still the need for regulation is being brought up, the need for… regulating it as child pornography. My sense is that it is a time for chasing up policy-makers and advocates. A number of people were raising the same issues, but there was also a fear, let’s not raise it in relation to VAW, because it might contravene freedom of expression. On the positive side, there is an expert meeting report, which inputs into the agenda beforehand. The report they produced was good at raising some of the issues around ICTs and saying make sure freedom of expression is not compromised.

JM: Indeed. We attended one session on women journalists and social media, where they talked positively about the role of social media, for example in the Egyptian revolution, including the role, for example, of the Tahrir bodyguards. So I asked how technology aids forms of VAW, how are women journalists experiencing those violations as a way to exclude them from the public space. In response, one woman spoke of the hounding of women, this being a new kind of syndrome, a tactic to exclude women in the public space. And this isn’t new, it’s a repetition of the same tactics that have been used offline historically, it’s just happening in a different space. She spoke about how there are entire communities of people whose job it is to put out false information about public women who are doing something that is not considered acceptable. The tactic is to scandalise women, to report their FB accounts, to tag all of their posts as harmful. She spoke of these as a specific strategy to ruin reputations and exclude women, and I think that was quite significant. And she also spoke of freedom of expression laws and the need to engage freedom of expression movements, to ensure a kind of balance. In our advocacy, we need to not only talk of how technology is used in acts of VAW, but also how it can be used to respond to it.

SR: How can women’s rights advocates use the work that was done in New York to make a difference at home?

CGR: The major thing is to engage locally with policy-makers. For example, I’ve already been asked to do a workshop on gender and ICTs in a government department, engaging policy-makers, not just the familiar ones, but also the ICT sector. So for Women’s Month, in March in the Philippines, they’ve asked me to present at a forum on the decisions made at the CSW at the department that works on issues on technology, the ICT Office.

Second, during the event itself, there was a discussion with the dean of a women’s university. This dean is quite a senior feminist, and she said that if we don’t influence policies now, students, mainly girls and women, will be kicked out. This is because there is a very moralistic approach to these issues, rather than an approach which is supporting women who are victimised. So she invited me to speak with them, to help initiate policies, guidelines for school administrators, and I think these are really practical in helping women and girls who are at risk. The dean said this is such a big issue in schools and universities, so I’ll be engaging the university commission to higher education to help develop these ideas.

JM: One of the most important values of the CSW is that it is a place where people can meet each other. Some NGOs focus on the side events, because there you can form relationships to take things forward. If you look at people we have met, discussions we have had, I think three things have come out of that. First, as Chat says, the issue of misogyny as a tactic to exclude women from the expanded public space, that’s very clear. The second is making use of the special procedures, such as the special rapporteurs, the UN Working Groups, CEDAW, looking at what mechanisms exist that we can use for our own advocacy. So we raise these issues with people or institutions whose responsibility it is to raise these issues with governments. And these institutions can investigate if they see that say, violations of freedom of expression are an issue, and following an investigation they can present a report to the United Nations – so that’s a very influential process. And lastly, looking specifically at CEDAW, because it is an open space, which we can use to make both long-term general recommendations to states and, in the short-term, making observations on the impact and intersection of VAW and ICTs.

One more thing that was significant for me was to see how our advocacy in other spaces came into the CSW. For example, the deputy chairperson of the working group on discrimination in law and public life, who made an input in the main session, included an entire paragraph on technology and VAW, and called on the CSW to take account of the trends and get states to take action. That was a response to advocacy APC had been doing with that Working Group.

CGR: It may seem that after two weeks of hard work and negotiations, all we get is just one sentence on ICTs and VAW, so what is the point – but I think you have to realise we are going to LOVE that statement to death! We will be bringing it out and reminding governments that they signed onto that statement. To be able to make a difference, you need to make the connections directly between the agreed conclusions and the situation on the ground.

Image by UN Women

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