Feminist demands and right-wing pushback at UN women’s conference


The 68th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) has shown, how interlinked economic and gender justice are. At the same time, the linkage between feminist grassroots and UN institutions has drastically weakened – perfect timing for anti-gender actors to influence the negotiations.

Illustration: The Stars Are Us

Every March, CSW turns the UN Headquarters, cafés, and event spaces around it into a feminist hub. While government delegations negotiate for two weeks over the agreed conclusions, feminist activists and women’s rights defenders from around the world discuss, fight, and strategize over how to enhance gender justice globally.

This year, the UN’s largest annual gathering on gender equality and women’s empowerment took place from 11 - 22 March under the priority theme, “Accelerating the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls by addressing poverty and strengthening institutions and financing with a gender perspective”. Acknowledging the nexus between economic justice and gender justice made many feminists attending CSW hopeful for more transformative agreements, however, not all participants and delegations made use of the progressive potential that this focus could bear.

Right-wing strategy behind the discord: CSW Negotiations

The idea behind this year’s CSW lies in the gathering of governments, civil society organizations, experts, and activists from around the globe, to agree on future actions to eradicate gendered poverty and push gender equality forward.

However, this year's negotiations on the agreed conclusions have been far from easy-going for a couple of reasons.

Despite a shared commitment to the priority theme, differing approaches and demands completely took over the negotiations, causing the debate to revolve mostly around semantics. Representatives from conservative and autocratic governments employed deliberate and strategic anti-gender tactics to obstruct a process towards agreed conclusions that would effectively address gender and social injustices. However, this is not a new phenomenon but a recurring tendency at platforms like CSW, which reflects the character of anti-gender tendencies in multilateral spaces in recent years.

Additionally, the recently introduced austerity measures at the UN limited the negotiation process even further by cutting the time available for Member States to negotiate and for civil society actors to influence the negotiations during the breaks. This further contributed to settling for an already quite general and weakened text for the agreed conclusions.

Some of the trivial terminology debates we witnessed were circulating around the more binary “violence against women and girls” versus the more inclusive term “gender-based violence”. Similarly, the concept of ”gender equality” was played against the more structural concept of “gender justice”. Additionally, many progressive civil society organizations had hoped for more gender-transformative approaches to be included in the text rather than those that remain only gender-sensitive.

The LBTI caucus (The Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Caucus is an informal group of over 300 representatives and organizations covering every region of the world) raised a very important point regarding the shrinking space for civil society engagement, particularly as negotiations shifted to inaccessible venues, excluding non-official delegation NGOs. The removal of event sofas from outside closed doors further restricted opportunities for advocacy, limiting the ability of NGO actors to engage with negotiators and influence discussions.

What are the gains?

In the final hours of the CSW, member states adopted the Agreed Conclusions (AC), which answered to the issues around the priority theme along with a set of recommendations to accelerate progress towards ending women’s poverty and advancing gender equality.

The AC reaffirmed the Beijing Declaration, the Platform for Action, and the gender-responsive implementation of the 2030 Agenda and acknowledges the importance of women’s full, equal, effective, and meaningful participation, as well as decision-making in addressing poverty and strengthening institutions and financing. Unfortunately, the text remains very binary in its language and ignores trans*, inter and non-binary people. Fundamental issues related to protection of human rights of LGBTQI did not make it into the final text.

The text also recognizes that women and girls are disproportionately affected by poverty, which in turn impacts their access to healthcare services, including universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services. Gender-based violence and sexual reproductive health are also retained in the text, despite the pushback. Amongst the advancements were increasing investments in health technologies, reducing out-of-pocket spending, as well as recognizing the right to have control over and decide freely on all matters related to sexuality and reproductive health.

The Commission recalled that the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation are essential for the full enjoyment of life by women and girls.

Given the significant pushback during the negotiations, it is evident that the AC text is very general, and it mainly reaffirms fundamental human rights and values inherent to our existence. It also expresses concerns about hunger, the magnitude of various forms of violence against women and girls, and the structural and systemic barriers undermining women’s and girls’ access to education, amongst others.  

Israel’s war in Gaza and Hamas attacks on Israel overshadowing negotiations and side events

The effects of the brutal terrorist attacks by Hamas on the 7th of October and the aggressive Israeli attacks on Gaza that had and continue to have an impact on women and girls especially were both brought up in the negotiations, as well as inside and parallel events. Hereby, the fragmentations within the global feminist movements became apparent, as the events were either solely focusing on Israeli or Palestinian women and girls. The Women’s Rights Caucus (a global coalition of more than 200 feminist organizations, networks, and collectives that advocates for gender equality within the CSW) concludes that despite broad references made to women’s and girls’ conflict and post-conflict situations and the role of women and girls in peacebuilding in the agreed conclusions, they “regret that the agreed conclusions text could not reflect language to condemn foreign occupation and support a specific reference to a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, which had been brought up during negotiations.”

We want all wars, all colonization, and all militarization to stop immediately. Not one more life taken, not one more tree burnt, not one more river dried, and not one more square meter of land anywhere occupied.

(Soudeh Rad, an Iranian-French nonbinary activist from eco-queer feminist organization, Spectrum, during the negotiations)

Where the magic happens: CSW offsite the UN grounds

Since the negotiations are increasingly being detached from the over 6.000 participants, the actual potential of CSW lies outside the UN grounds at the various event spaces where feminist NGOs and other civil society organizations engage in agenda-setting and networking events. Participants can choose from over 400 parallel events that tackle issues from reproductive justice to queer struggles or gender-based violence. Answering this year’s priority theme, one of the most discussed topics was feminist funding – an approach to funding that centers feminist and marginalized communities that work at the frontlines for gender justice in their communities. Feminist funding, according to most speakers, is not just a means to an end but a powerful tool for achieving gender and social justice. The panels clearly demanded core, flexible, and multiyear funding and addressed especially donors and governments from the Global North, where funding culture needs to shift from control to trust.

Moving forward: CSW69 and call for collective action

The sixty-ninth session of the Commission on the Status of Women will focus on reviewing and appraising the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, as well as the outcomes of the 23rd special session of the General Assembly. It will address the implementation of the Platform for Action and analyze where we are on the path towards the fulfillment of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Already now, feminist organizations demand more civil society participation at the related Summit of the Future and the Beijing +30 process.

The Global Unit for Feminism and Gender Democracy, together with partners and colleagues from around the world, will try to participate in these spaces with the clear goal - to amplify the voices of the Global South and to push for the upholding of human rights for all.

The Global Unit for Feminism and Gender Democracy, together with partners and our international feminist network, will seek to participate in these events with the clear aim of amplifying the voices of the Global South and pushing for the upholding of human rights for all.