Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka with Geraldine Byrne-Nason, Chair of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)
Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka, Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), speaks at the United Nations Observance of International Women’s Day on the theme “Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change.” At left is Secretary-General António Guterres, and at right is Geraldine Byrne-Nason, Chair of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations. Photo courtesy of UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe, March 8, 2019.

Women and their male allies continue to fight for gender equality despite the coronavirus interfering with their annual UN gathering.

The coronavirus outbreak isn’t sparing the global women’s rights movement. Many of the thousands of women’s rights advocates who were supposed to descend upon UN headquarters from nearly every country on earth next week, can’t make it to New York. They were coming to participate in the annual two-week session of the intergovernmental body that shapes global gender equality and women’s empowerment standards, known as The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). I was supposed to be one of them in my capacity as a Gender Justice Program Officer at Strategic Advocacy Human Rights, an NGO that supports survivors of gender violence. However, a few days ago the debate and all related events were canceled.

Although it’s largely ignored outside the circle of UN wonks and feminist NGOs, CSW matters because across the world, women face greater threats to their physical security and more obstacles to political participation, economic independence, and access to justice than men. It is proven that when men and women of all races and creeds and classes participate equally in society and enjoy equal protection under the law, the world grows richer and more peaceful. Dismantling the norms, institutions, and laws that perpetuate the power imbalance isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart approach to maintaining national security and international stability. That’s the goal that CSW participants strive to achieve.

 
The problem is that most national and international policies continue to treat women’s well-being and empowerment as an afterthought, something that may be a worthy secondary goal, but not an essential aspect of diplomacy or economic or defense policy.
 

The first time I attended CSW in 2015 the atmosphere palpitated with excitement because it coincided with the launch of the UN’s 15-year agenda for sustainable international development, which included for the first time an explicit gender equality target. Then, I was covering the event as a journalist. Now here we are five years into the global initiative to close the gender gap by 2030; 20 years after the UN Security Council unanimously resolved to stop tolerating the disproportionate impact of armed conflict on women; and 25 years after the conference in Beijing that produced a groundbreaking global policy document on gender equality. And we are still struggling to implement the changes these initiatives demand.

The problem is that most national and international policies continue to treat women’s well-being and empowerment as an afterthought, something that may be a worthy secondary goal, but not an essential aspect of diplomacy or economic or defense policy. As long as that continues to be the case, we will not close the gender gap.

Olga Oprysko (middle) of the Azov Sailors Women Platform speaks at a press briefing, together with Natalia Mokriak (left)
Olga Oprysko (middle) of the Azov Sailors Women Platform speaks at a press briefing, together with Natalia Mokriak (left). The briefing was sponsored by the Permanent Mission of Ukraine to the UN, in the context of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Photo courtesy of UN Photo/Evan Schneider, March 13, 2019.

In 2014, Sweden made history when then-Foreign Minister Margaret Wallstrom adopted a ‘feminist foreign policy,’ introducing the concept to the world. Essentially, it means equating national security less with advanced weaponry and more with human security and equality, the lack of which fuels most conflicts. What might that look like in practice? It’s the opposite approach of separating families at the US-Mexico border or flinging refugees back and forth across the Aegean as if they were ping pong balls in a nasty game between Turkey and Greece. A positive example could be holding accountable the four out of five permanent UN Security Council members—the body charged with upholding international peace—who (along with Germany) export 74% of the worlds’ weapons.

To be sure, enacting feminist policy is easier said than done. Even Sweden has not yet managed to fully do so because it faces pushback from some members of its own government and powerful industrialists who benefit from lucrative arms exports. Meanwhile, only Canada, and to a lesser extent France, Germany, and the UK, have aspired to follow Sweden’s lead in trying. The United States meanwhile still refuses to take the basic step of ratifying the international treaty that prohibits all forms of violence against women (siting sovereignty concerns), which keeps it in the questionable company of countries such as Iran, Somalia, and Sudan.

 
Let’s double down to make gender justice and women’s empowerment a reality in our lifetime.
 

The many obstacles to adopting a feminist approach to policymaking and other gender equality goals tempered my expectations for this year’s CSW session to spur meaningful change. Maybe the fact that the coronavirus interfered with the most important event of the year to mobilize progress on women’s rights will matter little in the long-run.

Yet, it’s still frustrating that we advocates won’t have the chance to speak up with a unified voice about why we need governments and international institutions to stop leaving women and girls behind. My message to my fellow would-be CSW delegates and all who stand to benefit from greater equality and inclusion is this: our headline event might be canceled, but our sustained efforts to achieve equality is more crucial than ever. Let’s double down to make gender justice and women’s empowerment a reality in our lifetime.