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Bold Steps for Raising Structural Challenges: The Enabling Environment for Women’s Rights, Global Justice and Sustainable Development

The 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women was convened at the UN headquarters in New York from 10 to 21 March 2014 to address the challenges and achievements of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in improving the lives and respecting, protecting and fulfilling the human rights of women and girls. After two weeks of intense negotiations, governments recognized some of the structural impediments to the achievement of the MDGs, and called for prioritizing gender equality and the human rights of women as core elements of the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Importantly, governments called for strengthening the international enabling economic environment for gender equality and the empowerment of women, monitoring and evaluating the impact of all economic decision-making on gender equality, and taking corrective actions to prevent discriminatory impacts. However they failed to advance on specific recommendations to address systemic issues related to inequities in trade, finance and debt as well as respond to the call from the global south for regulating the private sector as part of global economic reforms.

Governments highlighted obstacles to MDG implementation and missing elements of the MDGs that should be included in the Post-2015 Development Agenda


In the Agreed Conclusions of the 58th CSW, Member States recognized that progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls has been held back due to a combination of structural factors. Governments referred to “the persistence of historical and structural unequal power relations between women and men”, and “socio-economic inequalities and persistent discrimination”. They also highlighted “the ongoing adverse impacts, particularly on development and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls, of the world financial and economic crisis”.  In this context, they stated that “the global economic crisis and the shifts to austerity measures taken by some countries have impacted women and girls negatively, with reduction in investment in social sectors”. They mentioned “inadequate development resources, including official development assistance in support of gender equality and women’s empowerment”.


Such recognition of some of the major underlying economic causes of persisting gender inequalities and inequities can be considered a major step taken by governments at the CSW, particularly considering that proposals under discussion on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the Post-2015 Development Agenda have not been bold and ambitious enough. In the SDGs track, “Development” is often framed as unlimited economic growth, while human rights obligations and the social justice agenda are reduced to narrow “anti-poverty” measures. Moreover, Official Development Assistance commitments and the role of states in mobilizing maximum available resources are being downplayed by the strong promotion of “partnerships” with the private and corporate sector.


Governments also expressed concern that several critical issues related to gender equality were not adequately addressed by the MDGs, including but not limited to: women’s and girls’ disproportionate share of unpaid work, particularly unpaid care work; the gender wage gap; women’s equal access to, control and ownership of assets and resources including land, energy and fuel; women’s inheritance rights. Further, governments stated that “unless all dimensions of gender inequality are addressed, gender equality, the empowerment of women and the realization of human rights of women and girls cannot be achieved”.


Specific measures to promote women’s economic, social, cultural, and sexual and reproductive health and rights were agreed. For instance, governments called for efforts to ensure women’s right to work and rights at work; equal access to and control over assets and resources; to value, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work by prioritizing social protection policies, development of infrastructure, employment policies, and maternity and paternity leave and benefits as well as promoting equal sharing of responsibilities between men and women to change the division of labour based on gender. Furthermore, after considerable debate, governments agreed to ensure “the promotion and protection of the human rights of all women and their sexual and reproductive health, and reproductive rights… through policies and legal frameworks, strengthening of health systems, that make universally accessible and available quality comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care services,… while recognizing that human rights include the right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free from coercion, discrimination, and violence”. All of these need to sustain their prominence in discussions around the next global development framework.


Governments addressed the need for an enabling environment for achieving women’s rights and gender equality


In order to advance on women’s rights and gender equality so that these different elements may influence the Post-2015 development agenda, governments devoted one part of their discussions to agree on measures to “strengthen” the enabling environment for gender equality and the empowerment of women. It is important to highlight the fact that the Agreed Conclusions addressed links between women’s rights and i) global trade, financial and economic systems; ii) global financial and economic crises; iii) macroeconomic policies and iv) mobilization of resources. These are by far strong texts coming out of the CSW which reflected a concern for macro-, meso- and micro-economic issues and policies that affect women and girls. As expected, compromise language deterred advancing progressive policy recommendations on reforming global economic governance, including the financial architecture, and addressing systemic issues that are obstacles to fulfilling women’s rights and achieve people-centered sustainable development.


Nonetheless, governments called for an important reference to reorient trade, financial and investment rules towards the realization of women’s human rights and development, as found in the text below:


“work towards ensuring that global trade, financial and investment agreements are conducive to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women and human rights of women and girls, and complement national development efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls, including through reaffirming the critical role of open, equitable, rules-based, predictable, non-discriminatory multilateral trading system, and strengthen the effectiveness of the global economic system’s support for development by encouraging the mainstreaming of a gender perspective into development policies at all levels in all sectors”.


Secondly, the same cautionary recommendations applied to the handling of financial and economic crises. As such, governments agreed to:


“take measures to ensure that, in global and national policy responses to financial and economic crises and to excessive volatile food and energy prices, any negative impacts on gender equality and the empowerment of women are minimized, including on employment and funding for essential services and social protection systems, and that particular support is given to the most disadvantaged and vulnerable persons, and that gender equality and the empowerment of women continue to be promoted, including the protection of the human rights of women and girls;”


In this case, it is necessary to implement at national level countercyclical and social policies to respect women’s human rights and to avoid transferring the costs deriving from privatization, cuts in cash transfers and social services, food and job insecurity to women through further increases in their unpaid work. However there is also an urgent need to tackle the root causes of financial and economic crisis as well as price volatility in global markets, and to promote strong re-regulation and a rights-based and development-oriented reform of the global financial and economic architecture.


In the third place, governments agreed to “implement macro-economic policies that, together with labor and social policies, promote full and productive employment and decent work for all and gender equality and the empowerment of women”. However, immediately after that governments adopted an orthodox perspective that instrumentalizes women’s rights to boost economic growth. They stated that the previous is needed in order to “enhance economic efficiency and optimize the contribution of women to economic growth and poverty reduction; and increase awareness among decision-makers, the private sector and employers of the necessity of women’s economic empowerment and their important contribution”. In the same line, the reference of the need for a shift from the current economic model, which perpetuates gender inequality and women’s poverty was removed from the text.


The fourth link is related to mobilization of resources. After overcoming the opposition of some northern countries, it was agreed that governments urge developed countries that have not yet done so, to make concrete efforts towards meeting the target of 0.7 per cent of their gross national product for official development assistance to developing countries and the target of 0.15 to 0.20 per cent of their gross national product for official development assistance to least developed countries”. Also at was agreed in the UN Conference of Sustainable Development (Rio+20, para 260), there was a call to strengthen international cooperation, including the role of North-South, South-South and triangular cooperation, “bearing in mind that South-South cooperation is not a substitute for, but rather a complement to, North-South cooperation”.


In addition to this, governments decided to increase and ensure the effectiveness of financial resources through mobilization of financial resources from all sources. They detailed commitments on domestic resource mobilization with specific focus on gender-responsive budgeting. They also included the notion of public-private partnerships in a very broad and short paragraph: “strengthen international cooperation in technology and innovation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women, including through public-private partnerships”.


Nevertheless governments also agreed on specific measures that could have positive implications in terms of accountability mechanisms. Governments agreed to:


“monitor and evaluate the impact of all economic decision-making on gender equality, including public sector expenditures, austerity measures, where they apply, public-private partnerships and investments, and official development assistance, and take corrective action to prevent discriminatory impacts and achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women”.


So, even though public-private partnerships (PPP) were finally included in the agreed conclusions, governments agreed to monitor and evaluate not only PPPs but also investment treaties, public expenditures, ODA, and austerity measures so that they may take corrective actions to prevent discriminatory impacts and achieve gender equality. Even if there is no mention of extraterritorial obligations that will support this effort to hold governments and multinational corporations and the private sector accountable to human rights and environmental protection standards, this is an important step towards shaping the accountability mechanisms that should emerge from the Post-2015 Agenda.


Furthermore, the lack of political will, the implementation of public policies in vertical and narrow ways, and the institutional resistance to addressing cross-cutting issues along with systemic issues at the global level, explain to a great extent the lack of progress in the implementation of international agreed development goals at national level.  In this sense, governments made a step forward when they agreed to:


“Prioritize and mainstream gender equality perspectives in all social, economic and environmental policies and programs to implement the Millennium Development Goals, including national development policies and strategies to eradicate poverty, and gender-responsive budgeting and public expenditure allocation processes; establish and strengthen institutional mechanisms for gender mainstreaming at local, national and regional levels, promote and ensure the implementation of national legal frameworks and the coordination between branches of government to ensure gender equality”


To conclude, even if governments did not spell out the recommendations on reforming the global economic structures and system of governance, the CSW 58 Agreed Conclusions may be considered a bold step in the right direction, i.e. they raised structural economic challenges at the global and national levels that are key for MDG implementation and the design of a Post-2015 Development Agenda. They also provide a frame for interlinking multiple aspects of women’s human rights that are often treated in silos. For this reason governments must use this recently “agreed language” for shaping the Sustainable Development Goals that are under discussion in the Open Working Group on SDG sessions.

Nicole Bidegain Ponte is a member of the Executive Committee of Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era -DAWN. The author thanks her colleagues from DAWN Gigi Francisco, Corina Rodriguez and Gita Sen for their valuable comments.


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