NEW YORK – Celebrations broke out on the floor of the United Nations on Friday last week as the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) signed off on a new blueprint for the rights of women and girls in rural areas around the world.
The head of U.N. Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, described the agreement as a “vital step forward.”
“In the commission’s two weeks of dialogue we have heard clearly from the women and girls themselves what they want: from the rights to own property, to the need for quality infrastructure, to the rights to make decisions about their own bodies and lives,” she said.
The outcome document of the two-week meeting – known formally as the Agreed Conclusions adopted by Member States – commits to improving the lives of women and girls in rural areas in domains as diverse as unpaid care, land rights and violence.
But it was no sure thing that the 193 member states involved in the drafting of the document would agree on the final conclusions at all. The last time the CSW met to discuss rural women and girls, in 2012, no agreement was reached after two weeks of tough negotiations.
The final outcome document released this year was the result of many long nights of closed-door negotiations between states who debated what to include in the draft and what to exclude. Several people close to the process spoke to News Deeply about how agreement was reached, and what that means in practice.
Pushing for an Outcome
Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition, says the lack of an outcome in 2012 was partly due to the lack of feminist organizing around the negotiations. That’s why in 2013, the Women’s Rights Caucus, a loose coalition of around 400 individuals and organizations, of which the IWHC is a co-convener, was created to strategize on the CSW and advocate for human rights and gender justice.
“We really thought that was essential in the aftermath of that failure so that we would have outcomes and that governments would be held accountable by women’s groups as to what was going on in the negotiation room,” she said.
Kowalski credits the adoption of the agreed conclusions this year to the increased role that civil society played during the negotiation process, both prior to the CSW and outside the closed-door sessions.
“I think it does make a big difference when governments know that people are watching what they’re doing and that they are invested in an outcome. It increases their motivation to reach [an agreement].”
Before Negotiations Begin
In the months leading up to the CSW, civil society organizations and coalitions convene to develop a strategy for their advocacy based on an initial document released by the commission, known as the zero draft, among other preparatory documents.
“We try to build up an approach to the text that identifies a couple of key guiding principles – first of all, understanding what’s in the text that we want to protect,” said Siri May, U.N. Program Coordinator for Outright International, also a co-convener of the Women’s Rights Caucus and head of the LBTI (lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex) Caucus.
“Civil society has always had the opportunity to engage bilaterally with government, so any civil society organization that would like to make a contribution or raise an issue of interest or concern to them to be reflected in the outcomes can do so if they so choose to, in direct contact with the delegation,” explained Christine Brautigam, director of the Intergovernmental Support Division at U.N. Women.
It’s then up to the member state to decide to take civil society’s recommendations to negotiations, or not.
Camping on Couches
In the crucial two weeks of the CSW, negotiators remain behind closed doors and when talks begin, civil society organizations gather on couches outside the negotiation room, ready to pull all-nighters alongside delegates as they gather information and execute their respective advocacy strategies.
“Basically, it’s nongovernmental organizations, women’s organizations and others that are trying to influence the negotiations [who are sitting on the couches],” Kowalski said. “Lots of organizations have relationships with the people that come from capitals in their own countries to participate in the negotiations on behalf of their government, so there is a lot of opportunity for sharing information back and forth.”
Through these connections, civil society groups can see drafts of the documents as negotiations are in progress, and as delegates come in and out of the negotiating room, they can ask for recommendations.
The Negotiation Process
The document that emerges from this process is bound to be controversial, after two weeks of language-tweaking and debates over what to include or leave out.
“At CSW, you either get consensus or you don’t have a text,” May said. “So if you think about the kind of diversity of viewpoints on gender between 193 member states of the U.N., it’s not necessarily a surprise that things have to be compromised.”
Often, May said, countries aren’t even negotiating in their own interests, owing to their affiliation with larger regional blocs.
“[Countries] will tend to compromise some of their own national priorities in order to fit into the regional priorities because there are other payoffs for them,” May explained.
“You think everyone’s just coming in to negotiate in good faith, but the truth is a lot of those divisions were locked down long before you get into the negotiating rooms.”
Each negotiating bloc has “red lines” that it will not cross: issues that its members will not accept being mentioned in the final text, or left out of it. The European Union’s red line, for example, is the inclusion of sexual health and reproductive rights, which must be balanced against African and the United States’ own red lines about abortion.
“They have to come together and try and work out how they can hold the text and the issues that are important to women and girls living in rural areas without getting into any of those red lines,” May said.
“It’s just kind of like this big microcosm of what’s happening out there in the world.”
Inclusions and Omissions
In the end, civil society organizers were pleased with the overall tone of the agreed conclusions. Notable inclusions were an unprecedented mention of human rights defenders in a climate that has seen an increase in attacks against women activists, and a more open definition of families and their changing needs – a key issue for the LBTI Caucus.
“These are very big wins in what you can only describe as a very frustrating and glacially paced set of negotiations over a number of years,” May said.
The inclusion of numerous references to the uneven burden of unpaid care undertaken by women and girls in rural areas was also a win, Kowalski said.
Notably omitted from the text, however, were a number of paragraphs dedicated to the rights of migrant women living or working in rural areas.
“They were one of the last things to actually be deleted because there wasn’t a consensus among governments,” Kowalski said. “We know that migrant women and girls are particularly marginalized and face particular risks and challenges when it comes to realizing their human rights, and so the fact that they weren’t addressed in the document is a loss.”
Impact on the Ground
Late-night debates in New York about minor language tweaks can seem worlds away from the reality of women’s lives around the world. But activists say the agreed conclusions can make a practical difference on the ground.
“Nepal, a couple of years ago, was going through a constitutional change process, and there was some resistance to including commitments to sexual and reproductive health and rights in their constitution,” Kowalski said.
“Some of our colleagues were able to use the agreed conclusions and commitments Nepal had made on a global stage to embed that commitment to sexual and reproductive health in the Nepali constitution.”
Not everyone is pleased with the outcome – many U.S. activists are unhappy with their country’s more conservative stance in the talks, while other delegates say the agreed document is not progressive enough to make a difference. But others, like May, are taking the final conclusions as a win.
“I take great pride in the small wins, because they can be few and far between in this current environment,” she said.