MCC photo/Sitha MpofuFor two weeks every March, the streets and sidewalks around the United Nations Headquarters in New York City get a little livelier. Briefcases and high heels stake less of a claim on the neighbourhood as the typical UN crowd is joined by student groups in matching t-shirts, religious leaders in collars and capes and women from around the world wearing a wide representation of traditional attire.
This is the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). While the term technically describes a formal intergovernmental body that convenes at the UN each March, CSW is also used colloquially to encompass a wide range of gender-themed events held by UN member states and civil society. Next week the United Nations will host the 63rd session of the commission, and the energy in the air is palpable.
The first Commission on the Status of Women met in 1947 and consisted of leaders from 15 different national governments – all women. One of the primary goals of the first commission was to challenge the gendered and exclusive language used in many documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ use of the words “man” and “mankind.”
Flickr/UN WomenIn the past 70 years the task of the commission has evolved and expanded. The annual summit still provides a space for debate about language in official documents, but it is now also an opportunity to hear from grassroots gender activists from across the globe. The theme of CSW for 2019 is “social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls."
During the next two weeks the commission will hear interventions and discuss the gender-related successes, gaps and goals revealed throughout the past year. These dialogues will result in a resolution that will inform the UN’s work on gender in the year to come.
One of the most valuable developments in the way CSW functions is the introduction of UN-affiliated side events and civil society-led parallel events. Both provide opportunities for governments, UN agencies, NGOs such as MCC, members of academia and other civil society actors to interact with and learn from each other. Side events and parallel events often address the same broad themes that inform discussion among the main commission, making many of the conversations multilateral.
The UN recognizes and celebrates International Women’s Day the week before CSW. The proximity of this day to CSW is a chance to rev up energy at the UN before plunging into the delightful chaos and deep conversations of the commission. International Women’s Day events often include high-level speakers from the UN and civil society along with well-known celebrities. Artistic intermissions featuring youth performers and Broadway singers keep the energy up in the room.
The UN’s progress on gender is undeniably slow. What is notable, however, is the degree to which conversations on gender at the UN have opened up. Women in political leadership as well as women in civil society and those leading on the ground are making it known that they will be the ones defining the status of women in the world.
The UN’s commemoration of International Women’s Day and the Commission on the Status of Women are opportunities to analyze gender dynamics within the UN itself. Celebrity appearances and formal statements cannot mask the gender discrepancies that plague the United Nations as they plague most other institutional bodies of power.
Although current UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres ran his campaign for the position partially on a platform of gender parity and the empowerment of women, the UN has yet to actually appoint a woman as Secretary-General. Similarly, although many celebrated the election of María Fernanda Espinosa as the President of the General Assembly (PGA) in September 2018, the gender disparity of the position is indisputable. Seventy-three leaders have held the PGA position; only four have been women.
The UN’s progress on gender is undeniably slow. What is notable, however, is the degree to which conversations on gender at the UN have opened up. Women in political leadership as well as women in civil society and those leading on the ground are making it known that they will be the ones defining the status of women in the world. Last year’s session boasted the highest recorded registration for CSW to that point, and this year’s is expected to set another record.
The MCC UN Office also has the capability to invite people to attend CSW alongside our office. In the future we would love to see more MCC partners and constituents joining the vibrant crowds navigating Midtown East, eager to speak their lived experience into living conversations.
Abby Hershberger is Program Assistant at MCC’s office at the United Nations.