By Natasha O'Farrell, University of Sydney
On Friday March 17, the first week of CSW61 drew to a close. The official negotiations were underway in one of the conference rooms at UN Headquarters, with supporting members of delegations camped outside ready to give advice and show support as needed. Our day started with a Townhall event run by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and the UN Under Secretary General and Executive Director of UN Women, Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. The Townhall provided Civil Society organisations with an opportunity to engage and share concerns with the Secretary General and his senior staff. The event was the first of its kind and a historic moment for Civil Society at CSW. Given that Secretary General Guterres is new to his post and, admittedly, a large proportion of civil society in attendance were rather disappointed that the new Secretary General was not a woman, the Secretary made a great effort to demonstrate his passion and intention for the UN to facilitate the global achievement of gender justice for women and girls. Civil society asked whether the Secretary General had plans to achieve equality and parity for women within UN staff, and if a Civil Society Liaison would be appointed (as was the case during Kofi Annan’s leadership). The Secretary General confirmed his commitment to initiatives. Other questions included how negotiations will ensure the independent treatment of girls in the agreed conclusions. Specifically, warning against an ‘add girls and stir approach’ and instead encouraging governments to re-consider all factors from the lived experience of a young girl.
After the Townhall, I attended a session entitled, ‘Promoting Women’s Economic Participation through Addressing Unpaid Care and Domestic Work’. This event was run by the Islamic Development bank and involved speakers from UN Women, Oxfam and Islamic Relief Worldwide. This discussion focused on specific programs that the above organisations are running to address the unequal distribution of unpaid care work. The event focused on specific examples from the developing world where infrastructure is poor and unpaid care work takes up a considerable amount of time. If it takes two days to fetch water or three hours to cook a meal—and there are three meals a day to prepare, then very little time is left to pursue paid employment. Unsurprisingly, women are the people who are in this situation and hence are not financially independent or economically empowered.
I also attended a session run by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions and the Asia Pacific Forum that sought to discuss the role of human rights institutions in promoting and protecting women’s economic participation in the changing world of work. Hosted by Australia, New Zealand and Germany, the presentations focused on the contributions National Human Rights Institutions make in championing the cause for equality. Presentations were made by representatives of these institutions in Chile, Costa Rica, Morocco, and the United Kingdom. The Australian representative the Hon. Dr. Sharman Stone MP, the Ambassador for Women and Girls, delivered introductory remarks and noted the incredible work of Australia’s independent human rights institutions. Immediately after this session the Global Voices delegates were fortunate enough to meet with Dr Stone and discuss our policy papers and more specifically, the lack of women in political spheres. She was both impassioned and inspiring, giving us a window into Australian gender politics both abroad and at home.
The afternoon left me some time to do some reflecting on the week as a whole. In my mind, three major conversations emerged from the conference this week. Note that this really is just my observations framed by the sessions I attended and the conversations that I had. These conversations were around the importance of prevention of violence against women and girls. Prevention meaning transforming culture, attitudes and education practices to create a new status quo that ensures that we do no harm to women and girls, and that we champion them. Another conversation was around indigenous rights and the multiple and intersecting experiences of discrimination that indigenous women endure. This conversation revealed to me that we simply do not do enough, we do not know enough and that perhaps we are not asking the right people and empowering indigenous people to make their own change. Indigenous women told me again and again this week that they want change, and they know how to do it, they just need a seat at the table.
The final conversation that I have observed or listened to was the importance of valuing unpaid labour. The work of women in performing care roles and domestic labour frees other people (predominantly men) up to spend time earning money. I learnt in a session that despite the fact that women enter and leave employment at different stages over their lifetime, on average, the amount of care and domestic duties they perform remains the same.
Perhaps what struck me the most this week was Australia’s position at the conference as an open contributor—as a nation that upholds best practice and speaks truth and practicality directly into complicated policy issues. The conference itself was both overwhelming and exhilarating. With so much potential for change and innovation, I was often frustrated at the deliberate pace at which business proceeded. However, I developed a better understanding of change, and good change as being incremental and generational. What an awesome and humbling experience to be in the company of such talented and passionate people.