Attending the annual session of the Commission on the Status of Women, always is, I find, a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. For two weeks, one lives between fear and hope. Fear, because for the past few years, CSW sessions have been marked by a global backlash against gender equality. Fueled by a worldwide wind of conservative populism. Hope, because such conservatism has also prompted a powerful counter movement. The women’s marches and #MeToo are well-known examples. Both forces are at play at the UN.
A Woman’s Job
The UN leadership, well aware of the aforementioned global context and threats it poses to the UN system itself, started CSW63 off with a warning. Where multilateralism – under attack as it is by the same conservative forces – fails, women usually are the first to suffer. Geraldine Byrne Nason, chair of CSW, in her opening speech thus made a strong plea for more women in the top of multilateral institutions.
“Multilateralism is cooperative and collaborative problem solving: sounds like a woman’s job to me!”
Secretary-General António Guterres equally advocated for women leadership in multitaleral frameworks, admitting that
“Men usually have trouble acknowledging they got lost and subsequently asking for directions. But we did get lost and we do need directions, from women. Women who throughout history have systematically been silenced, or at best ignored.”
Achieving gender equality then, fundamentally is a matter of power.
Time is Money, Money is Power
How then, can women acquire the power to influence (multilateral) decision-making? This year’s priority theme, although seemingly all-encompassing, in fact offers some guidance. The theme, at first glance, looks rather abstract. Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. Essentially, the underlying principle is quite simple. It is about freeing up women’s time. So that they can spend it on their personal development, in i.a. education and paid work.
Access to clean water resources close to home, for example, eliminates the daily time-consuming task of fetching water that women in large parts of the world still bear responsiblity for. Access to electricity at home, exempts them from the burden of collecting firewood. And enables them to use electronic domestic devices, broadens their economic possibilities and allows girls to study after dark. Safe and adequate sanitation facilities in schools enable girls to stay in school while maintaining their menstrual hygiene. Electricity, water and sanitation systems are infrastructure-heavy sectors. But they also operate as public services and often require social protection measures, such as connection fee waivers or subsidies, to be affordable for all.
By freeing up their time, supporting their mobility, enhancing their access to economic opportunities and strengthening their resilience to shocks, women and girls will be able to live up tot heir own potential and acquire the power to provide the directions that Guterres and the world require.
Gender-sensitive investment in public services, social protection and infrastructure thus are vital for the achievemement of gender equality. However, under the influence of the conservatives in power worldwide, many advances in the provision of social protection and the extension of public services are under threat of cutbacks in the name of austerity. This is where the fear comes in again.
A shimmer of hope came from Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science Ingrid van Engelshoven. In her speech at the NGO lunch at the Dutch Permanent Representation, she highlighted that, while she too worried about the global gender backlash, she still believed that the CSW provided a platform and opportunity for countries and people to exchange ideas and best practices. The real rollercoaster is about to commence, with the negotiations for the outcome text, the Agreed Conclusions starting later today. We will thus soon know whether her optimism was grounded. One thing is for sure: it’s gonna be one hell of a ride!