In the timeline of the her’story of the women’s human rights movement, last year was a significant year, marking the 25th anniversary of the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights where women’s rights were for the first time clearly recognized as human rights; some remember it as the moment when women were finally recognized as “human” under international law. It was also a significant time marked by the launch of the 16 Days of Activism on Violence against Women Campaign, with the support of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL), which helped secure the recognition of violence against women as a human rights violation:
“The main objective of these demands was to bring women under the protection of international law” says Melissa Upreti, of CWGL. Upreti is also an Expert member of the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women in Law and in practice (UNWGDAW).
In the Pacific Island region, 2019 marks the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Pacific Platform for Action (PPA), a year ahead of the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA) at the United Nations Fourth World Conference of Women in Beijing, China.
These policy documents, including the ICPD Platform of Action, which reinforced the recognition of women’s reproductive rights as human rights, have been utilized extensively by governments to develop national policies on women’s reproductive health and education as well as laws prohibiting violence against women and for gender equality.
The upcoming 63rd session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women will address “Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls” as its priority theme. This meeting will be significant as it is one year before the 25-year review and appraisal of the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and three years after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The upcoming session will build on the priority themes of the preceding sessions of the Commission on the Status of Women, including CSW 61 on “Women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work” and CSW 62 on “Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural 3 women and girls”. It will pay particular attention to multiple and intersecting inequalities that can obstruct women’s and girls’ access to social protection, public services and sustainable infrastructure and constrain their ability to benefit from related investments. Extending social protection to women in informal employment—in both rural and urban areas—and tailoring public services and infrastructure to their needs will be one of the focus areas.
It is an opportunity to take stock of the extent to which social protection systems, public services and sustainable infrastructure investments currently contribute to the achievement of gender equality and sustainable development; identify persistent gaps and emerging challenges; and develop forward-looking recommendations.
The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995) recognizes the importance of social protection, public services and infrastructure for poverty eradication and progress for women and girls more broadly. Under the critical area of concern A (women and poverty), Member States committed to creating ‘social security systems wherever they do not exist, or review them with a view to placing individual women and men on an equal footing, at every stage of their lives’. The critical role of infrastructure was recognized under areas F (women and the economy) and K (women and the environment) where Member States were called upon to ‘provide public infrastructure to ensure equal market access for women and men entrepreneurs’ and to ‘support the development of women’s equal access to housing infrastructure, safe water, and sustainable and affordable energy technologies, such as wind, solar, biomass and other renewable sources’.
The right to social security is also enshrined in UN legal instruments setting out the rights of specific population groups, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, 1979), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965), the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families (1990), and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006).
So what does this priority theme of CSW63 mean?
According to the concept note for the CSW63 Expert Group Meeting (EGM): Social protection systems, public services and sustainable infrastructure are at the heart of achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Without scaling up investments in this area, virtually all of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals—be they social, economic, environmental or political—will remain out of reach. From eradicating poverty (SDG 1) and ending hunger (SDG 2) to achieving health and quality education wellbeing (SDG 3 and SDG 4); from decent work and inclusive growth (SDG 8) to reducing inequalities within and between countries (SDG 10); from promoting sustainable cities (SDG 11) to preventing conflict and sustaining peace (SDG 16); from providing clean water, sanitation and energy for all (SDG 6 and 7) to combating climate change and strengthening resilience to disasters (SDG 13)—social protection, public services and sustainable infrastructure play a critical role in “transforming our world”. As such, their provision must also be geared to changing unequal gender relations to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls (SDG 5).
Upreti stresses the need for a concrete result:
“What we’d like to see as a concrete result for CSW63 is a higher level of understanding and recognition of the issues of social protection, public services and investment in infrastructure, as women’s human rights issues, and - the discriminatory aspects of these issues in policy and practice framed and addressed with a strong focus on accountability and an approach that is anchored more directly in the recommendations of human rights treaty bodies and special procedures including the UNWGDAW, whose series of thematic reports provide a strong basis for framing many of the issues that will be raised at CSW63 as issues of discrimination and whose recommendations provide clear action points.”
It will require a shift, she says, from the re-affirmation of the problems to a stronger focus on action-oriented commitments to practice that have been developed through the broad participation of affected groups and are being implemented in a way that unquestionably empowers women, it is one that ensures the protection of women’s human rights defenders:
“As noted by the leadership of the Feminist Alliance for Rights, of which the Center is the secretariat, an approach that does not regard disadvantaged women merely as vulnerable groups but as individuals with agency and leadership potential who know what they want and need must also be reflected in the outcomes”.
One the other side of the world from where Upreti has spoken on a stakeholder panel at the United Nations (UN) addressing the CSW63 theme, in a small agriculture based community, on the outskirts of the Fiji’s second city, Lautoka, a daily newspaper reports on a meeting by the Minister responsible for Agriculture, Rural and Maritime Development, Waterways and the Environment recently met with farmers in the community of Paipai-Vakabuli.
It is in this community, in a settlement of 500 households lives Litia Masei who has had the sole responsibiity of raising her two daughters and a grandchild. But she was not at the meeting with the government minister. It is also not that member’s of her Vitogo-Paipai Women’s Group are members of the farmers advisory group, even though it is well known that women contribute substantively to the agriculture sector.
Had she been at the meeting, the Minister would have had a chance to reaffirm the role rural women leaders have been playing to bring changes to their community.
Litia has been a strong voice through the local community media network meetings for Rural Women Leaders convened by femLINKpacific in the past few years and this has enabled her to call for the relocation of a bridge that the communities relied on:
“I knew we needed a better bridge. It needed to be relocated. The children were most affected trying to reach the Vakabuli Primary School”. Also affected were residents who need to take the one hour bus ride to the Lautoka city for work, to get to the divisional hospital and access other government services.
Litia continues to work hard to provide for her family. She has turned her talents into a small enterprise producing funeral wreaths for the local market and managing a small canteen.
Her women’s group is involved in craft production, recycling paper and cartons for jewellery and even laundry baskets that are sold at local craft fairs. However it is clear from our conversation that she is able to cover the household and some personal expenses, but not invest in her own social security:
The EGM concept note highlights that while social protection coverage has increased during the last decade, the world is still a long way from achieving comprehensive coverage for all. In most countries, social protection systems continue to privilege those engaged in uninterrupted, full-time and formal employment (with eligibility for benefits or access to services contingent on prior contributions to social insurance). This conspires against women’s equal access to social protection, given that they are more likely to hold informal, part-time and non-standard jobs and tend to interrupt their employment more frequently than men to take care of dependents. Where sex-disaggregated data is available, it often shows that women are overrepresented among those who remain excluded from social protection. For many women, a life time of labor market disadvantage often translates into poor pension coverage, alongside a lack of savings and assets which could protect them against poverty in old age. Even where women have become key beneficiaries of new social protection programmes, such as conditional cash transfers, their implications for gender equality and women’s empowerment have been far from clear-cut. Much depends on how specific social protection schemes are designed.
Litia’s story, her life, resonates with the situation of rural women living in the global south.
Fane Lomani Boseiwaqa is a rural correspondent and convenor for femLINKpacific. She emerged from a programme for young women producers and broadcasters between 2007 – 2011 to now assists the coordination of a network of close to 80 rural women leaders, from three districts in the western division of the main island of Viti Levu.
Boseiwaqa is well aware of the persistent challenges that remain for rural women despite the Fijian Government’s ratification of CEDAW (1995) and the adoption of national gender policies including the Fiji National Gender Policy (2014) and the National Women’s Plan of Action – both up for review this year:
“Empowerment is not just through income generating projects but also taking the lead. Being included and having their recommendations integrated”
According to Upreti, while there has been some progress in increasing women’s access to public services, specifically health and education, one cannot ignore the current political, economic, social, and cultural climate that continues to exclude women including by heightened backlash and persistent attacks on gender equality, where the concept of gender is being challenged by opponents of women’s rights and misleadingly characterized as an “ideology” that is opposed to family values:
“(There is) troubling populist rhetoric grounded in racism and misogyny which is helping amplify those voices and drown out the voices of women; the shrinking space for civil society and reprisals against women human rights defenders; the displacement of millions of women across the world due to climate change, war and organized crime in local communities; impunity for acts of discrimination and violence perpetrated by individuals, corporations, as well as governments; and the duality of efforts by some governments to promote peace and security while enabling war to sustain their economies”
For the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC), the prevalence of armed conflicts and intensifying natural disasters is destroying social infrastructure resulting in the displacement of communities causing women and children to survive without basic services such as safe housing, sanitation and healthcare. The loss of access to information and communication systems, services and the lack of protection with dignity measures worsen women’s position in society and leave them more vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence rather than being empowered to contribute to the resolution and further prevention of the resurgence of conflict and violence as well as rebuilding of communities.
Responding to these challenges says Boseiwaqa requires a shift in the power structures particularly at the sub-national level:
“When we talk about gender equality, disaster response, women are first responders, but we don’t have the numbers in decision making at that level. We still see the under-representation. We need at least 30% at the community level, so that we can address the issues for us as women together.”
“We are not sitting there we are coming up as leaders,” says Litia, “but we do need the verbal abuse, the violence to stop”
Collaborations with men, in the community are a positive indicator of how gender equality commitments can be integrated into the social and community structures, on how there can be equality in decision-making says Boseiwaqa:
“There is a small change happening. Dialogue can help because men are recognizing how women are contributing. In our villages women are now being invited to the village and development planning meeting. That is an important achievement”
A sustainable solution, according to Upreti requires a more rigorous assessment – and not merely an acknowledgment - of how certain laws, policies and programs embody discriminatory gender stereotypes and perpetuate women’s systemic disadvantage, thereby contributing to violence against women in different spheres”
“These must be replaced with ones that are more directly anchored in human rights standards of substantive equality. The obligation to eliminate discrimination is immediate under international law but, unfortunately, this urgency is not reflected in the actions of all governments. In many instances, ending discrimination will require paradigm shifts in legal and economic frameworks”
This shift, says Upreti can result in better recognition and understanding of women’s roles in different spheres as well as what constitutes crisis, as existing in the many threats and insecurities to women’s well-being that are linked to social, cultural and economic inequalities – many of which are embedded in our systems.
This shift adds Boseiwaqa is also being inclusive of women with disabilities, women of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity, and younger women. It requires sustained support for women’s organizing, movement building, particularly at the local and community level.
CWGL will co-sponsor a panel on March 13 inside the UN, with the UNWGDAW, which will provide an opportunity to make some of the critical links between social protection, public services and investments in infrastructure to systemic discrimination against women and, based on the thematic reports and official country visits of the WG, highlight promising practices and discuss the steps and new approaches that are needed to address these issues.