Concluding Annual Session, Women’s Commission Approves Text on Bolstering Regulatory, Legal Framework for Gender Equality, Warning COVID-19 Is Rolling Back Progress
Women’s Equal Representation in Decision-Making, Ending Widespread Gender-Based Violence Crucial for Realizing Sustainable Development Goals, Outcome Document States
The Commission on the Status of Women concluded its sixty-fifth session today, approving a wide-ranging set of agreed conclusions that broadly reaffirm the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action — adopted at the landmark fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 — as “crucial” to fulfilling the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, as the world slowly emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The five-page outcome document — adopted unanimously under the priority theme of women’s participation in public life during an in-person meeting at United Nations Headquarters — lays out the Commission’s concern that women remain significantly underrepresented in all aspects of decision-making and that violence against women in public life is widespread.
“Failure to expedite women’s participation and decision-making in public life and the elimination of violence against women will make it impossible to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030,” the Commission asserted, warning: “The COVID-19 pandemic is rolling back the limited progress made towards the achievement of gender equality.”
Through the text, the Commission recommends several actions to strengthen normative, legal and regulatory frameworks, first and foremost urging Governments to implement existing commitments and eliminate laws, policies and regulations that discriminate against women.
To prevent and eliminate violence against women in public life, the Commission urged Governments to reform legal frameworks to criminalize such violence — both online and offline — and to end impunity. They must also build the capacity of law enforcement personnel, prosecutors and judges to enforce laws on violence against women, respond to incidents and ensure access to complaints and reporting mechanisms for survivors.
In terms of institutional reforms, Governments were urged to ensure gender‑sensitive approaches to pandemic response and recovery by appointing women and gender equality advocates to leadership positions, through gender parity targets for relevant decision-making bodies. Specialized gender equality committees or commissions, women’s caucuses and networking forums must be resourced.
To increase the availability of high-quality financing for women’s participation in public life, the Commission urged Governments to create the conditions and incentives for women candidates’ campaigns to be financially supported by public and private funds. To strengthen women’s voices, Governments should facilitate women’s entry into the political pipeline — and importantly — sensitize community and religious leaders, the media, men and boys, and different generations of women to counter social norms that restrict women’s rights and participation in public life.
“It is critical to integrate gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls throughout national, regional and global reviews of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda,” the Commission stated, as it called on the United Nations and relevant international financial institutions support Member States, upon their request.
After the adoption, delegates thanked the Commission and Member States for their contributions to reaching these conclusions, especially given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Echoing pledges voiced by many speakers, the representatives of Morocco, Iran and Nigeria highlighted their commitments to women’s empowerment and putting an end to violence against them.
Germany’s representative, speaking on behalf of the European Union, said the conclusions adopted today reflect the importance of including a gender‑responsive approach in COVID-19 recovery plans and advancing women’s empowerment. However, a push back against women’s rights continues, he said, citing several delegations’ interventions during the session. The European Union reaffirms its commitment to, among other thing, reproductive health and rights, free from discrimination, coercion or violence.
Several delegations explained their positions on certain terminology and issues. Chile’s representative, speaking on behalf of the Santiago group of countries, said a range of proposals had been made to, among other things, strengthen action against gender-based violence, but there were not enough provisions on victims and only one element referring to diversity in the final document. Ukraine’s representative regretted to note that language related to unilateral trade measures was included, adding that these references do not belong in the document.
Several delegates said that, while joining the consensus, their delegations had reservations on certain elements. China’s representative said “human rights defender” is not an internationally agreed or defined term, thus her delegation will disassociate itself from this language. Brazil’s delegate said such issues as climate change and human trafficking could have been addressed differently and require clarification, and that terminology such as sexual and reproductive health and rights should not be interpreted as promoting abortion as a means of family planning. Sudan’s representative disassociated herself from terms including sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Echoing several delegations’ concerns, Yemen’s representative highlighted the term “gender”, noting that sex is either masculine or feminine in his country’s religion. Saudi Arabia’s delegate said: “We are against anything that goes against our Sharia,” adding that she remained upset about the retention of language her delegation had repeatedly argued against, and that marriage must refer to women and men, and gender to men and women only. Libya’s representative underlined the need to respect States’ sovereignty, regretting to note the deletion of two related paragraphs inspired by the Beijing Platform for Action, and emphasized that her delegation recognizes men and women only, so references to gender and gender identity are matters that must be revisited in future discussions.
On the issue of negotiations, Egypt’s delegate said discussions were not transparent and elements that had been discussed were not included in the final text. As such, working methods must be revisited, she said, adding that holding working groups outside normal business hours must not be used to exhaust smaller delegations. The Russian Federation’s representative raised concerns about several ambiguous terms and regretted to note that maternity protection and family support did not make it into the final draft.
The United Kingdom’s delegate said he remained saddened that certain delegations tried to roll back progress on women’s empowerment. Looking ahead to the next session, he said the work accomplished to date is only as meaningful as each Member State’s implementation of the conclusions in their home countries.
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Under-Secretary-General for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women), made closing remarks.
Also speaking today were representatives of New Zealand (also on behalf of Australia, Canada, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein), United States, Tunisia, Nicaragua, Iraq, Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico, Namibia, Mauritania, Qatar and the Republic of Korea, as well as an observer for the Holy See.
In other business, the Commission adopted the draft report of its sixty‑fifth session (document E/CN.6/2021/L.1), introduced by Vice‑Chair‑cum‑Rapporteur, Shilpa Pullela (Australia), and the provisional agenda for its sixty-sixth session (document E/CN.6/2021/2).
Briefly opening its sixty-sixth session, the Commission elected Mathu Joyini (South Africa) as Chair, and Pilar Eugenio (Argentina) and Gunter Sautter (Germany) as Vice‑Chairs for the sixty-sixth and sixty-seventh sessions, as well as the Russian Federation as a member of its Working Group on Communications concerning the Status of Women.
THILMEEZA HUSSAIN (Maldives), stressing that COVID-19 redirected resources away from essential needs as new challenges arose, said the Sustainable Development Goals cannot be achieved without the full empowerment of women and girls, with gender mainstreaming serving as the cornerstone of all such efforts. “Women are in the front lines serving their communities,” she said. Maldives has empowered women and girls through greater educational opportunities and a priority focus on gender mainstreaming. In line with Sustainable Development Goal 5, the country has taken a holistic approach to the systemic barriers facing women. She pointed to the gender equality law, adding that the local council allocated one third of its seats to women and that 35 per cent of Cabinet ministerial posts are held by women. She went on to note that Maldives has ratified seven of the core human rights conventions and withdrawn several of its reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
NATA MENABDE, Executive Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) Office in New York, underscored WHO’s commitment to mainstreaming gender equality across all programmatic areas of its work programme. Expressing grave concern over pronounced gender disparities worldwide, the increased incidence of gender‑based violence, including against health workers, and the decreased availability of essential health services, she said the impact of COVID-19 has disproportionately burdened women and girls through the closure of schools and care for sick family members. Indeed, women have been critical to the pandemic response. And yet, while they make up 70 per cent of the global health work force, they hold only 25 per cent of the global health leadership roles, she said, noting that the WHO Gender Equal Health and Care Work Initiative aims to increase the proportion of women in health and care leadership, and to protect these women from violence at work.
A speaker from International Disability Alliance underscored the importance of women with disabilities being able to exercise their right to vote and to be elected. Stressing that women and girls with disabilities face discrimination, she said they are disproportionately underrepresented and largely invisible in public decision-making. She drew attention to a European Economic and Social Committee finding that millions of people with disabilities have no opportunity to vote, due to inaccessible voting procedures and polling stations, among other factors. In 14 European countries, laws have removed the voting rights of persons with disabilities under guardianship, she said, adding that the European Court of Human Rights recently ruled against two people with disabilities who sought recognition of their right to vote despite guardianship laws.
A speaker from Girls Learn International, Inc, underscored the imperative that girls of all backgrounds be included in all decision-making spaces. A girl’s education is a fundamental human right. She called on States to challenge the status quo around education — including mental and sexual reproductive health and education — provide civic education and recognize the emotional and psychological impact of violence. States must also acknowledge and reject abuse against girls in all spaces, and in particular, fight against child marriage. “Girls deserve a seat at the table,” she asserted, pressing Governments also to fund policies that aid in the collection of data.
A speaker from the Congressional Black Caucus Political Education and Leadership Institute said equal participation in decision-making has never been more evident, noting that, for the first time in United States history, there is a woman of colour serving as Vice-President. She recalled brutal injustices that began with the stripping away of rights of enslaved ancestors, stressing that African‑American women embody the promise of the United States. They know the pain of generational torture, which led them to the forefront of the last election. African‑American women registered voters called out intimidation and demanded that “we be counted all the way to the White House”, she said, stressing: “We will continue the fight for all those who are our progenitors.”
A speaker from Widows for Peace Through Democracy said widowhood is the most neglected of all gender and human rights issues. Year after year, the status, needs and roles of widows are systematically ignored. Even in the Commission on the Status of Women, they rarely garner a mention. Yet, the number of widows of all ages increases daily, due to conflict and myriad other factors, and now even COVID-19. Widow survivors of violence, including genocide, live in camps for displaced persons, where young mothers are most at risk of sexual violence. It is vital to make Governments accountable for the widespread human rights violations that millions of widows experience, due to the perpetuation of patriarchal practices and structures.
A speaker from International Trade Union Confederation, explaining that her association represents more than 80 million working women, said working women are affected in particular by the informal economy and discrimination, stigma which is linked to class, race, ethnicity, disability and migration status. She called for access to work, health care, education, politics and justice. “Unions are agents of change,” she asserted, pressing States to reverse the trends at play. Women are among the most exposed to inequality at all levels, she said, underlining the importance of International Labour Organization (ILO) convention 190 and recommendation 204 in that context, and calling for efforts to close the gender pay gap.
A speaker from Centro de Culturas Indigenas del Peru made several proposals to guarantee the participation of indigenous women in political decision-making. Indigenous women are not sufficiently represented and face multiple forms of violence. She recommended that States and the United Nations revise normative frameworks, including electoral laws; strive for gender parity with an ethnic focus; strengthen autonomous spaces for women political training — with earmarked resources; end all forms of political violence against indigenous women; allow their participation in prior consent; and collect relevant disaggregated data.
A speaker from Rural Development Institute said the Beijing Platform for Action emphasizes that the sharing of power is essential to ensuring gender equality. This is especially true in the control over natural resources. “Men dominate decision-making and control over resources,” she acknowledged, yet women’s control and rights over land are essential. Land is their most life‑giving asset, providing food, housing and livelihood. Therefore, investments in women’s control over land are a prerequisite, as the most consequential decisions over humankind’s survival will be made in the coming years.
A speaker from NAZAR for Feminist Studies — for The Feminist Coalition for Middle East and North America Region towards Beijing+25 said women are using feminist discourse to create change. Drawing attention to violence against women in conflict zones, she said the Feminist Coalition is working on responsive feminist agendas. She pointed to a NAZAR statement highlighting the situation of Yemeni women prisoners in the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that Coalition members highlight the priorities for various women. They aim to start a transformation, appreciate the “feminist movement struggle”, support human rights defenders and allow feminist activists to lead peace negotiations.
A speaker from Stichting Choice for Youth and Sexuality urged the Commission to recognize that young women and girls have the fundamental right to participate in decision-making and public life. Young human rights defenders face harassment threats and physical abuse, notably those who are part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual and intersex communities. Yet, there is too little accountability in place to protect these young defenders or to ensure they receive justice. “Young defenders must be protected,” she said, particularly in their right to privacy and in countering hate online and offline. “Until all of us are empowered, none of us are.”
A speaker from International Planned Parenthood Federation said there is a long way to go to achieve gender parity in decision-making. Noting that sexual and gender-based violence is on the rise during the pandemic, amid reports of harassment, intimate partner violence, femicide and online violence, she also pointed to increases in the numbers of women calling help lines and seeking out crisis shelters. She pressed Governments to strengthen the ability of women and girls to participate in decision-making, enhance comprehensive sexuality education and place a priority focus on reaching the most vulnerable populations.
A speaker from the Coalition against Trafficking in Women urged the Commission to address trafficking in persons, the majority of whom are women: 65 per cent of those detected. Women and girls trafficked into the sex trade or forced labour suffer a life‑long impact. Addressing these abuses runs across the Beijing Platform for Action and the Sustainable Development Goals. As such, she called on States to implement laws that address trafficking and reflect key human rights instruments, including the 1949 Convention, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children. Other measures should recognize the distinct dimensions of sex trafficking and its clear relationship with the sex trade, the latter of which can never be a legitimate source of income for women.
Also delivering statements were speakers from the following organizations: Action by Churches Together; Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women; Equality Now; Ilitha Labantu; International Alliance of Women; Let’s Breakthrough Inc. (as a member of Men Engage Alliance); World Young Women Christian Association; Swedish Federation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights; Plan International, Inc.; and Soroptimist International.