Fighting the backlash: Moving the agenda forward at the CSW
The 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women was held in New York from 10 to 21 March 2014. While there were strategic moves forward in relation to ICTs and tech-related violence against women, the APC Women’s Rights Programme discuss both the highlights and the frustrations the women’s movement faces in pushing the women’s rights agenda forward.
Flavia Fascendini: What were the major issues raised and discussed at the CSW 58th session? And what do you think was missing from the table?
Jac sm Kee: The stated theme for this year’s CSW is really to look at the Millennium Development Goals, and to see what’s been achieved so far and what needs to be strengthened for the post-2015, beyond the (present) Millennium Goals. This meant the different sections were grounded together through the development framework. Interestingly what was discussed quite a lot was the issue of women’s reproductive health and rights. The pushback seems a lot stronger this year because there was even resistance in terms of using the language of human rights. So for example, in one of the discussions even gender disaggregated data was raised as a question, like what does this mean? Why must we have gender disaggregated data? These are non-contentious issues, but it appeared raise alarm bells for some countries and there was quite a lot of pushback.
It feels like CSW is kind of the edge for talking about women’s rights and women’s rights issues with a very specific focus, and you have to go to CSW to defend this edge, this boundary. This boundary was drawn through lots of struggle and hard work, but what seems to happen each year is just a defence of this line and not much progression. Maybe that is overstating things, but it sometimes certainly feels that way. Issues have been agreed upon, but you have to fight tooth and nail for it every year.
FF: How do we bring ICT into the conversation that you want to be radical and you want to be advancing, but at the same time it’s really just defending this line from regressing. How does ICTs enter this conversation?
JK: It’s pretty good, everything we recommended made it into the agreed conclusions. There’s quite a lot of acknowledgment and recognition and mention of the need to access information and communication technology, the need to control ICTs, the need to be able to address the gender gap in relation to access because of what this (means), etcetera.
FF: And there is a framing of the gender digital gap within human rights, right?
JK: Yes, that is the biggest win for us. It’s language we recommended to the Philippines delegation, and it’s very good that it went in, that access to ICTs is not just for economic development but for the realisation of the full range of human rights. ICTs have been framed for many years as being about economic empowerment, employment, education, but never about the realisation of rights, so having that is a significant step forward.
FF: What would that mean in practical terms, linking this with your previous statements about all disagreements ending up in dead word?
JK: What this means is that you’re saying that the line for women’s rights also includes access to and control over technology for the realisation of their rights. Which means that in the future – next year is Beijing + 20, B+20 – so if you want to review Section J, or look at things around media and access to technology, you can use it as a reference and say, it is also for these purposes. That could broaden up the discussion a little bit more. From there it will hopefully inform policy and from there also it will inform resource allocation and decision-making.
FF: This 58th session built on the agreements made in the 55th: Did you see any advances in terms of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), since this is a review of the theme of the previous session? Do you see more awareness in women decision-makers about the role of ICTs?
JK: Yes, which again raises the question of the value of agreed conclusions from CSW, apart from providing framing and language so you can open up the conversation. There is no material reporting. Governments will say we have done this and this.
FF: And speaking about tech related violence against women, do you think it’s easier to talk about it now than it was a few years ago?
JK: Definitely, many people are raising it. Even at the session that I was moderating on access to ICTs for empowerment and human rights, people talked about it. The reality of violence, how to deal with it, a major threat, how do we address it, it’s an issue that requires serious attention. There’s definitely more awareness and more people bringing it up, and talking about it, so I guess what’s necessary now is to have clear framing around this issue, grounding it in human rights without using protectionist approaches.
Jan Moolman: The coupling of ICTs and trafficking in the context of exploitation of women that is worrying. We need to look at the rationale and motivations. I agree that there is more awareness, but three things stand out for me:
First, technology and ICTs linked to public/private partnership and the role of the private sector. We see this in the UN Women language and partnerships with Microsoft and Intel, for example.
Second, the emphasis on access to ICTs is more apparent, but it still feels like a narrow understanding of access. This is important for us to be aware of, because the post-2015 agenda sets the funding/resources agenda. If there is going to be financing for access, it’s important that understandings are broadened.
Third, in 20 years, we still have only section J to work with. Very little has moved on this. Perhaps the only other thing is the recent UN Working Group on discrimination against women in law and public life and the HRC resolution on women’s empowerment and FOE. However, this also is an opportunity, because there is so little interest on section J, as opposed to the backlash in the other critical areas of concern.
JK: But i think it’s important to explore the access issue – broadening this – access of what, for what.
Dafne Sabanes Plou: As part of the official Argentinian delegation, I would say that we were active from the very beginning, as NGOs and now as part of the Latin American NGO committee. I think it’s important to start early and follow every move that governments and the CSW committee make. We started work at the end of January because the Latin American government – the women’s machinery in the region – met in Mexico in early February and we were waiting for the Siruseri draft. The women’s machinery analysed it, and we NGOs also analysed it. And then they made a recommendation, so those who were able to go to Mexico went, and we lobbied to have language “in” and “out”. It was interesting because working with Magaly Pineda, who also does a lot of work on ICTs, we were able to introduce information and communication technology in a little phrase together with access to water, to electricity, and so on, all those basic things. And it’s interesting because the Siruseri draft took that from the beginning. And then in the final document you also find it and it’s very interesting to see, and we were analysing it, that access to – and they don’t call it only access but effective use – we would say strategic use, they say effective use – comes together with water, with land, with some of the basic rights that women have. So I think that’s also key, because on one side the committee acknowledges that there is still a gender gap, the gender gap persists, that there is a need to put the access to information and communication technologies on the same level as access to water, to land and to other rights that we have there, and then, they have a mandate to governments, and they say very clearly: invest in closing this gender gap.
FF: The LAC NGOs Committee sent a letter showing concern over the non-incorporation of the human rights of women in the agreed conclusions and the elimination of references to sexual and reproductive rights. What happened with that? I was wondering where that fits in this process?
DSP: The main concern is that every time you talk about women’s rights and girls’ rights there are some governments that react negatively, so we have to do away with that. It’s a real struggle, word by word. And then we have to be political in the sense that we have to be aware that there are delegations from governments that are not Latin American. The Latin American governments had a declaration in February, and we were happy to see that delegations kept to the February declaration. But then delegations from countries that are not that progressive who were being making very progressive statements in the plenary, were being badly attacked, terribly attacked by the conservative governments. And suddenly we had a request from one of these delegations saying “please, come and support us, because we were under attack, and if you don’t support us, our government back there in our country will say what are you doing? you are receiving attacks from everybody, even the Vatican! so we need your support.” We have to be alert to the very fine threads of politics. The thing is we were stuck in the discussions until the very last day and then were able to come up with solutions, but we can’t be every time, 20 years, struggling for the same things, so that they stand, rather than moving forward. That’s the main problem, that we still see a discourse and even text, I don’t know which draft it was, but there was a draft that had one or two lines on the value of family, they say things that we could read 50 years ago, the family being the nucleus of society, all that discourse and they wouldn’t speak of “families”, you know, and then there was a whole discussion, hours discussing that, talking about women in the family, and what was going on in other countries. And then of course some countries would never listen to you if you talk about egalitarian marriage like we have in Argentina, which means gay people getting married.
FF: So it was quite uneven, we could say.
DSP: Yes, but it has to do with rights in general. What has to do with information and communication technology is fine. We lobbied with the government of Philippines on the issue of trafficking of women and children and it also came out well in the text.
However, the language around trafficking is a little bit worrying. It’s a little bit vague and was saying that the private sector should be self-regulating. But, self-regulation is first of all is a concern if it isn’t balanced by rights or the rule of law, for example. And then the other thing is this is self-regulation in relation to sexual exploitation of women and children and in relation to trafficking, when there was already much stronger language in relation to ICTs and what needs to be done to address violence against women. So it feels like it wasn’t necessary and it was kind of vague and it also opens up potentially dangerous (avenues). The other problem is that it could be interpreted as the need to censor some kinds of information to protect women and children, and generally the kind of information gets blocked is around safer sex work or information around sexual and reproductive rights or LGBT information, so it needs to be balanced by human rights. Which is why it’s very important and it’s really good that paragraph M went through, the one that talks about excess control of ICTs for human rights. I think that helps provide a kind of counter-balance.
FF: 2015 will be a critical year for women’s rights, because a series of instruments will converge, such as the Beijing+20, the ending of the MDGs and their review, and the post-2015 forward looking processes, and also the WSIS. How does the scenario look for you in terms of women’s rights and ICTs? Are you optimistic, or not, and why?
DSP: I think we have to work hard towards this, because it is not only ICTs but also a media thing, media also appears several times in the document, so we need to try to move more around Section J, make it more visible and try to push some things within this Section, to raise awareness and do work more in depth about media stereotypes, internet and so on. Because we think it’s been an invisible Section of the Platform for Action for quite long. But I think that there are still chances, for instance this language we’ve got here, it’s fine if we can go on working with it for the post 2015, but we should do everything in the framework of human rights because I think that’s the only way out and it will also help us to have steps to eliminate other problems.
FF: And you participated in a strategizing meeting for the Beijing Platform for Action. What were the main agreements coming out of that?
DSP: The idea is to come together in an activity to highlight the importance of Section J, and the consequences of not paying attention to it and of not upholding the principles and the issues that are discussed, on one side, and on the other side we were able to start planning with Isis International how we worked together during this previous process and then during the Beijing + 20 discussions, in the sort of information and communication group that could really disseminate and work together to have the news and information that we need at other moments of this process throughout these 20 years. We came together with other organisations at the international level and we did cover the discussions of what was going on and being very active and so on. So I think other organisations will come in, but for the time being Isis International is one of our main partners. And UN Women is also interested in having – next February – the whole month dedicated to Section J and to promote the issues in Section J.So plans are that we will put Section J on the table again and do activities around it. It’s also time to bring young girls into the Section J discussion, especially because of technology.
JM: I recognise that Section J is critical for the realisation of all the other areas of concern. Also that in order to revive the women’s media pool, we could potentially have a few panels at the B+20 review, bring women from grassroots media movements together to cover B+20 in NY, linking B+20 review to grassroots media and solidarity with those not there, having a big Feminist Tech Exchange maybe around B+20, and a coverage shared globally. Also this goes back to APCs role since Beijing in 1995… it feels like we now have something to organise around.
FF: I remember Jan saying in the Gender Links presentation she made, that there has been a deprioritisation in any conversations around gender, media and ICTs. How can this make any sense, when we live in a reality that shows that this is a big issue? Because on one hand we are saying there is more recognition in general about tech-related violence against women, which also relates to the media issue, but on the other hand we see that practically those things are very deprioritised on the agenda. Why does that happen?
JM: I think it happens because there is an ‘immediacy’ that is felt when we talk about things like poverty, HIV and AIDS, militarisation etc. Media and ICTs are often seen as ‘soft’ issues – not even spoken about in relation to rights.
DSP: Perhaps one of the things is that even in the women’s movement, people see technology as a tool, and they don’t take time to analyse the political and social meanings and relevance. Once they start doing that, then other things come up. But it has been difficult, we know very well even from our work, in all our work supporting women’s organisations, it was more the need to access and start using it as a tool than thinking about the politics and policies around it. I would say that is a big step that has to be made, and that perhaps can help to change the perspective in which we look at these things. I think it’s important to highlight Section J again, and we are also looking at the debate that’s taking place within Unesco and the global alliance of media, because take women in the media, even if there are more women than before, what about gender issues, what about the gender perspective? There’s still a lot to be done, but there are ways to work around this Section J so as to tell these women in the media, ok here we have agreements by governments and so on, and we should try to work with them, taking women into account, and so on. So I think that’s also a task.