‘The CSW never gets media coverage’, we were told, while sitting in a meeting of government delegates at one of the ‘missions’ to the UN. The name probably doesn’t help. The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) sounds like something that has been kicked into the long grass, rather than what it is – the global decision-making body responsible for advancing gender equality and women’s rights.
This year’s CSW finished last Saturday, around two o'clock in the morning after a heavy round of negotiations, reminding us that so many of the things that many women take for granted, such as the right to live a life free from violence, the right to choose her life partner, the right to decent work and social protection, and the right to choose when to have children are still hugely contested around the world.
And this year, there was a lot at stake. Government negotiators and ministers, including three ministers from Britain, were considering what has, and hasn’t, worked in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – a set of goals to reduce global poverty – regarding the rights of women and girls. These delegates were joined by thousands of civil society representatives from across the globe.
The MDGs were established in 2000 and expire in 2015. Learning from them is essential for governments who are drafting the future ‘post-2015’ global goals and targets. These goals will continue to provide a focus on eradicating absolute poverty by 2030 and promoting sustainable development, aiming to support the poorest communities around the world who are more likely to be affected by the devastating effects of climate change. While there was a lot of support expressed for the MDGs at the meeting, there was also a lot of discussion about issues which were notably left out – ending violence against women and girls, addressing the burden of unpaid care work, ensuring equal land and inheritance rights, preventing early and forced marriages, and increasing the role of women in decision-making at every level. These are issues that need to be addressed if we are to have any hope of seriously eradicating global poverty.
It is easy to dismiss these global forums as mere talking shops, but a visit this week to one of Christian Aid’s partners, Corambiente, in Colombia, reminded me why we must not give up. Corambiente have established what they call a social business, working with indigenous women’s co-operatives in rural and mountainous regions to produce sustainable and organic food that they sell to city dwellers. By supporting the farmers they have not only helped them address the impacts of climate change and improve their farming techniques, but allowed the women who had previously only undertaken work in the home and had no decision making authority, to find a voice in the community.
Luis Carlos from Corambiente says that when they first started working with the women, many of them were silent and had low self-confidence as they'd always been treated as inferior to their male counterparts.
‘They had no faith in their own abilities. But now the women are working with the local mayor, who controls the community budget, to advise him on priorities for them and their neighbours.’
I attended the opening of a water treatment plant during my visit to the project, constructed as a direct result of advice from the women’s association who had highlighted the importance of clean water, especially at the local school.
The women explained to the mayor how rural communities like theirs continue to be disadvantaged. In particular, the women said that a lack of access to computers and the internet is impacting on their children’s education. These female voices are essential in the political process, and strong support for gender equality and women’s empowerment in the post-2015 agenda could help generate funding for these kinds of community development initiatives worldwide.
The conclusions that were eventually agreed last week at CSW were unequivocal in their call for a transformational stand-alone post-2015 gender goal, a goal which will be applicable in every country across the globe. The next step is a report on ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs), a process which arose from the Rio +20 conference in June 2012 on sustainable development, to carry on where the CSW left off.
Christian Aid is urging the SDG report authors to include the ‘missing MDGs’, paying particular attention to the most marginalized women, such as migrant or indigenous women, and ensure that all goals and targets promote the role of women and girls.
Change, like I saw in the lives of the Colombian women I met last week, will not happen overnight – but with the political will, policy and investment, as well as the pure determination and commitment of community leaders, a world of greater gender equality is possible.
Helen Dennis is Christian Aid's senior adviser on Poverty and Inequality.