Feminists challenge inaction at UN summit
Feminist activists faced two battles at the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) this year. The first was a wave of opposition from anti-rights groups, who continued to try and undermine gender and sexuality related rights. The second was in the form of inaction on climate change from states, mostly from the Global North, who consider themselves ‘gender champions’.
CSW is the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to gender equality and its conference takes place in New York each March. The final agreed conclusions are adopted by consensus through intergovernmental negotiations and impact how women access their rights in almost 200 countries. Climate justice was the focus of the event this year, which should have provided states with an historic opportunity to strengthen upcoming climate negotiations and agreements, such as the COP27 (UN Climate Conference), and concretely link them to gender and socio-economic justice.
The Commission is supposed to include UN representatives and NGOs from all regions of the world, but right from the start, CSW66 seemed to be be a closed shop. Due to the uncertainty over Covid-19, civil society organizations were given little notice on whether the event would be virtual or in person. In the end, they had just two days’ notice to organize entering UN compounds for the summit.
For people in the Global South who face tougher travel restrictions and resource constraints, this left no time to organize visas and travel arrangements. With very few young or trans and gender-nonconforming people, as well as the absence of indigenous communities, women with disabilities and women living in rural areas, there was a noticeable disconnect between the session in New York and the lived realities and expertise of communities most impacted by the climate crisis.
Climate inaction is a feminist issue
One of the biggest stumbling blocks during this year’s negotiations was the failure of mostly Global North states to address key demands made by Pacific and African feminists, the same mistakes of COP26.
EU member states, Canada, Australia, and the US refused to acknowledge their historical responsibility for climate change. As they pushed back against important commitments, CSW66’s final statement failed to reflect the urgent need for action. For example, there was no mention of climate finance to compensate communities who have already lost their homes and livelihoods from floods, droughts, heatwaves and rising sea levels. The most marginalized and most affected communities need to be prioritized, and funds need to be accessed directly by women-led autonomous groups.
Wanun Permpibul, director of Climate Watch Thailand, says: ‘[CSW66] was also a missed opportunity to carry forward the discussion on climate finance, especially for loss and damage, which would guarantee direct access to those on the ground who have already been bearing the cost of climate change from historical emissions.’
Despite portraying themselves as champions for women’s and LGBTQI+ rights, many Global North states showed little regard for the immense and disproportionate impact faced by women and communities from regions most vulnerable to climate inaction. A number of these states, including Canada, Australia, France and Sweden have adopted a feminist foreign policy in the past five years. In cherry-picking particular aspects of gender equality to support while avoiding accountability for harm caused by their extractive, neoliberal and pro-imperialist policies, we might ask, is this label any more than a branding exercise?
The anti-rights message
The other big battle faced by feminists at CSW66 was waged by ultraconservative groups who, pre-occupied with blocking progress on gender and sexuality-related rights, tried to take up as much space as they could. One often used strategy to gain broader public support is the selective co-option of progressive agendas and discourses. Groups like C-FAM (Centre for Family and Human Rights) and Campaign Life Coalition have emphasized the need to reject ‘population control’ as a solution to climate change. But rather than outlining the colonial and racist nature of population control arguments as most feminists do, anti-rights groups use this narrative to deny the right to abortion and erase human rights for women, trans and non-binary people overall. Often aligned with conservative economic and corporate agendas, these organizations show little interest in either causes of, or solutions to, climate change.
In recent decades, feminist and civil rights campaigners have made huge strides in ensuring true change in areas like reproductive rights, justice for indigenous communities and progress in anti-racist and pro-LGBTQI+ measures. But in recent years, anti-rights groups who oppose women’s bodily autonomy, promote a patriarchal heteronormative idea of family and persecute diverse expressions of gender and sexuality have strengthened their attacks on multilateral spaces, like the CSW.
Rights at Risk, a report published last year by the Observatory on the Universality of Rights, explains what feminist groups have observed in UN spaces in the last decade: anti-rights groups are increasingly well organized, well-funded, and work across borders to infiltrate global policy spaces.
During the last week of CSW66, policy makers and ministers in New York were greeted to the sight of six buses carrying the anti-abortion message ‘equality begins in the womb’ and the demand to erase paragraphs on sexual and reproductive health rights from an early draft of the agreed conclusions. The stunt was organized by CitizenGo, an anti-rights Christian group, originating from Spain and operating internationally. While it describes itself as a community of active citizens who work together… to defend and promote life, family and liberty in reality CitizenGo is linked to ultraconservative political party Vox in Spain and El Yunque in Mexico, and has coordinated campaigns against multiple reproductive health bills and policies in Kenya.
While CitizenGo primarily operates through an online petition platform to push an anti-LGBTQI+, anti-abortion agenda, it also regularly carries out offline actions to boost impact, such as the large anti-trans and anti-abortion tour buses parked outside of the UN in 2019. That same year, a CitizenGo petition led to a harassment action in which more than 1,000 anti-abortion text messages were sent to one CSW session facilitator’s phone.
While ultraconservative groups have so far failed to meaningfully push back gender and sexuality related rights, they have embraced the victim narrative. This year anti-rights organizations collectively circulated a petition, initiated by C-FAM, which claimed that anti-abortion campaigners have been locked out from CSW66 discussions by ‘powerful biased leftist groups’ because ‘they hold a different opinion’, saying this so-called exclusion ‘amounts to outright discrimination and censorship of dissident voices’.
That’s how organizations like CitizenGo – who hosted the collective petition – operate: they deploy shock tactics to gain publicity, await public criticism from pro-rights groups, and then repackage that criticism into a narrative where they are victims of a ‘cancel culture’ waged by powerful feminist groups. Such campaigns often attract support from conservative politicians with the power to legislate. A group of Republican members of US Congress backed the CitizenGo petition in a letter to UN Women. Included in this group were Congressman Bob Good who has launched a series of campaigns targeting LGBTQI+ people, and Lauren Boebert who has opposed federal laws to protect trans youth, and reportedly made Islamophobic attacks against another Congresswoman.
What’s frightening is all this taking place in the United Nations human rights ecosystem, a space created to advance human rights and hold countries accountable where there are violations and to strengthen protection of rights of marginalized communities.
Feminists fight back
There is some good news too. At this year’s CSW the activities of anti-rights actors were curtailed; those who had previously engaged in digital harassment or violence were barred from accessing some of the fringe events held alongside the main CSW meetings.
Feminist groups are, and have been, many steps ahead. In this instance, in the face of huge challenges, they tirelessly organized to ensure that their demands were at the center of CSW66 – through cross regional solidarity and mobilization.
While the negotiated text fell short of feminist expectations it at least recognizes sexual reproductive health and reproductive rights, and makes an explicit connection with climate justice. This can be attributed to years of feminist advocacy, despite continuous objections from the usual conservative suspects, such as the Holy See and Russia. Feminist and queer groups from Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga and other Pacific countries led advocacy and campaigns demanding action for loss and damage caused by climate change, coordinating remotely and across time zones. Protesting their structural exclusion from the CSW space, African feminists launched the #AfricaDisruptCSW66 Campaign, calling for a radical feminist rethinking of the UN.
Threats to feminist agendas are many: from an organized anti-rights lobby to crackdowns on human rights defenders in many parts of the world; from powerful private sector interests that prioritize profit over people and climate, to governments hostile to multilateralism and the international human rights system as a whole. But feminist activists fight back harder still and continue working through official institutions like CSW to advance human rights. The question is whether states claiming to champion gender justice and women’s rights are willing to step up and do what’s right.
This article was written with research support from Jeanne Hefez, Senior Policy and Advocacy advisor at Ipas; Cynthia Rothschild, human rights, sexual rights and feminist activist with a focus on UN policy and advocacy; and Anissa Daboussi, AWID’s Advancing Universal Rights and Justice Manager.
It has been co-published by openDemocracy and New Internationalist.
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