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Ester Harrius: Comments on the UN Commission on the Status of Women

As all our 193 governments met at this year’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at UN Headquarters, the thousands of activists, NGOs, and even government delegates were worried that a failure would signal a lack of political will to advance women’s rights.

Tensions were high.

There was a real risk that the Commission, like last year, would fail to agree on an outcome document.

I watched this unfold with anticipation, when finally on the evening of the last day of negotiations, March 14, states agreed on the sought-after outcome document.

Although that document is imperfect, a failure to sign one would have meant a continuation of a worldwide backlash for women’s rights. The outcome of this year’s CSW might indicate that small steps in the right direction will be taken.

The theme for discussion of this year’s conference–“the prevention and elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls”–brought together thousands of women from all over the world sharing experiences on how to make this a reality.

Many events highlighted the huge gaps remaining in terms of implementation–between law, resolution, and reality.

Despite the need for more resources, strategies, and political will to reduce these gaps, a number of conservative governments were pushing hard to water down the final political document. These included strong dissenting voices from different regions including the Arab group.

It is extremely discouraging that some governments–Egypt, Libya, Syria, among others–continue to infringe and deny women’s rights in the name of “culture”, especially since this region is in a state of rapid transformation, and new political cultures are being formed.

We saw the issues of “cultural” manipulation in the negotiations as states proposed sweeping exceptions for “tradition.” These did not make the final text.

In Syria–one of the countries that tried to undermine the outcome document–the civil war rages on. The war has led to many women being displaced, trafficked, sexually abused, and tortured in the name of “honor.” The international community has done little to protect civilians–instead, international arms trade, profitable to some countries, fuels and exacerbates the conflict.

The partners of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) from the Middle East and North African region called for the international community to reflect on the reality of women facing increased militarization in the region, realizing that the biggest threats in the region are poverty, unregulated weapons trade, and a lack of democratic oversight of the armed forces.

WILPF, the organization I am a part of, brought together women from all over the world sharing experiences on wars’ and conflicts’ gendered dimensions, and the negative consequences of arms proliferation and militarization. NGOs get a chance to share their experiences and voice their messages at “parallel events” and, with this year’s theme, many NGOs addressed conflict-related violence.

Annie Matundu-Mbambi, president of WILPF Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), spoke at numerous events about the sexual and gender-based violence many women endure in the DRC, the proliferation of arms putting women at risk, and the targeting of women human rights defenders.

A photograph from PROOF's exhibition "The Legacy of Rape", showing a woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo and her child. Photo: Pete Muller.

Even though these countries lie far apart, she felt that Annie’s experiences of war and violence were the same as hers. “It feels like she is describing the situation for women in Colombia...”

These crimes are often perpetrated with impunity. At one of these events, a woman sitting next to me commented on how she was struck by the similarities between the situation in the DRC and her homeland, Colombia.

Even though these countries lie far apart, she felt that Annie’s experiences of war and violence were the same as hers. “It feels like she is describing the situation for women in Colombia”, she told me as Annie was speaking.

To illuminate the gendered consequences of arms proliferation in and outside of recognized conflict zones, WILPF hosted a parallel event with its sections from the Sweden, DRC, Nigeria, Costa Rica, and Colombia.

From listening to the discussions, it became clear that the proliferation of arms and the easy availability of small and light weapons pose a serious, lethal threat to women’s security and facilitate gender-based violence, including rape.

The panelists highlighted the need to regulate international arms trade and to move away from a state-centered notion of security, as panelists made obvious the negative consequences of militarism and militarization for women’s security.

They discussed that $1.7 trillion is spent on military budgets annually, excluding corporate spending. This figure is many times larger than the annual budget of the UN and the budget dedicated to human security, gender equality, and development. This is obviously extremely askew and seriously neglects the rights and needs of women and men alike.

Women from a range of different countries–too many to name here–explained how militarization and the mere presence of military bases bring with them gendered and sexual violence. To quote the first paragraph of WILPF’s official statement to CSW57:

Militarization, and cultures of militarism, exacerbate gender roles, further reducing equality, and enabling the legitimatization and continuation of violence. Militarized societies and structures reinforce patriarchal control and power, all of which are incompatible with equal rights and peace.
— Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

Still, in the 16-pages-long outcome document of CSW, there is no paragraph on the need to reduce military spending–although this clearly is one of the root causes of violence against women. 

In relation to arms regulation, one paragraph states that illicit arms trade aggravates violence against women. However, it only refers to “illicit use of/illicit trade in arms” and thus fails to recognize the detrimental consequences of “licit” arms trade.

What I will take with me from this year’s CSW is that women’s full human rights need to be prioritized and also to be seen as an integral part of foreign policy, finance, or any other issue, if we are ever to reduce today’s gap between resolution, law, and reality.

To end violence against women and girls, we must recognize and deconstruct the gendered dimensions of warfare, seriously prioritize women’s rights, and move away from a militarized, misogynist notion of security. Maybe a bigger step in the right direction can be taken next year.

– Ester Harrius, intern at PeaceWomen, Programme (WILPF UN Office)

What I will take with me from this year’s CSW is that women’s full human rights need to be prioritized and also to be seen as an integral part of foreign policy, finance, or any other issue, if we are ever to reduce today’s gap between resolution, law, and reality.