For most women’s organizations, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is a magical part of the year, when they are granted access to the highest echelons of global policymaking. For two weeks, they organize side and parallel events, they participate in interactive dialogues with Member States and they lobby and advocate tirelessly. It is also an excellent opportunity for networking and building global coalitions on basically all issues that affect women – from economic independence to disability rights, combating violence against women and girls.
The CSW is the quintessential event where all the senses are at play. From the moment the women’s organizations delegations walk into the UN building, many feel like they are finally getting the recognition they deserve and which is sorely lacking in their home countries. Listening to speeches, seeing exhibitions and advocacy materials, hugging other women’s rights activists you haven’t seen for years, smelling and tasting the delicious food and drinks of the only proper cocktails hosted by governments that many delegations will be invited for the whole year, and being aware of the space you are taking as you establish your delegation of activists as players at the global level – these kind of events do not come often and in many regions they hardly exist at all.
Considering women’s organizations only receive 1% of gender equality funding, they are not exactly loaded with cash to spend on expensive trips to New York. However, it is an amazing opportunity and many organizations are willing to pay the sacrifice.
Except this year.
Due to the coronavirus epidemic, Member States gathered last Monday (March 2nd) to discuss the CSW64 situation, an event which would bring up to 10,000 people to New York from all over the world.
There were two options on the table: have a scaled down CSW with New York-based delegations or postpone it entirely. Many women’s organizations from all over the world asked Member States to #PostponeCSW, stating #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs. Passblue, a media outlet which covers women’s issues at the UN, live tweeted the meeting. It was interesting to follow the tweets and see exactly what countries considered to be the priority. Brazil infamously positioned itself in favor of a scaled down CSW without civil society – but wanted their own delegation from Brazil to continue with the trip.
Finally, the Member States decided to have a scaled-down CSW64 on the 9th of March (only one day), which will be broadcasted live through the UN website. Civil society, they claimed, will have the opportunity to participate later in the year with the Generation Equality forums. Women’s organizations are now frantically trying to get their money back from flights and hotel reservations, but since most of them have no option other than buying the cheapest available tickets and reservations, the reimbursement policies are not the friendliest.
Considering this is really the most important global event for women’s rights, we think the UN should take this opportunity to learn a few lessons.
Rescheduling and creating an online even where everyone can participate and engage.
Given the mediatic tsunami that is currently taking place (please see Sam Warerton’s blogpost here and the podcast version here), I am not surprised by the UN’s decision – ‘at least it was not completely cancelled’. However, what counts is participation and engagement, especially because in the end, it is always the smaller and more monetarily restricted NGOs that pay the biggest consequences. Given that it can be more or less assumed that these organizations are most likely in poorer areas of the world, they are the ones that need the networking, to be heard and to make bigger impact in their local environments, perhaps more than what is the case in other parts of the world.
We do have the technology to make people heard. With software such as Zoom and Skype, it is possible to make effective global meetings at an online environment. I understand this needs its fair share of planning and some infrastructure, but the meeting could have been rescheduled to an upcoming date. Many of the global development meetings of this incredibly important year are going to be cancelled and the CSW64 was the first opportunity to redesign it online. Just as is the case for climate change, we need to be able to adapt to changing times and dynamics.
Listen to #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs and all women’s organizations efforts.
The decision taken by the UN Commission on scaling-down the most important event for women´s rights has ignored all efforts taken from women’s organizations worldwide to avoid the change in the format of the 64th Session.
The suspended participation of all women rights organizations in the event, except New York-based delegations, makes reference to the current media coverage of the COVID-19 virus, which intense information dissemination is leading society towards panic and “fear state”. Perhaps this is a good occasion to remind the UN to follow the advices from international health experts on remaining calm so that final decisions regarding the CSW 64 Advisory are taken: preventing the unpredictable consequences of misinformation while remembering the hashtag #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs.
The scaling down of CSW64 is a travesty for small organizations and delegations from less rich nations who have lost out on vital funds, lobbying and networking opportunities.
However, an event of this size has significant environmental costs. Perhaps the fall out caused by the coronavirus outbreak will inspire the organizers of large events like this one to make online participation more integral to their planning. This would have to be organised with infrastructure which allowed anyone with a wifi connection meaningful participation. This could include: The ability for people to ask questions and online networking. Online participation could also help the decentralization of event activities around New York, giving space to smaller regional gatherings. Technology is catching up with online conferencing needs. CSW64 organizers should catch up too.
Advocate on behalf of women’s organizations for refunds and rescheduling of flights.
Many women’s organizations had to pay for expensive airplane tickets from Asia, Europe, Africa, Oceania and America. It would have made a huge difference if the UN had tried to contact at least the US-based enterprises (e.g. United Airlines) and let them know about the scale-down CSW64 and how participants were encouraged not to travel. For many, that would have made a difference between being able to reschedule the trip for next year or get a refund. As it stands, the CSW64 has probably caused a significant financial dent on small women’s organizations and there is no fund to replace that money. Because many women’s organizations decided to invest in travels for CSW64 and not for the Generation Equality Forums later in the year, this means they lost their opportunity to have a seat at the table and cannot afford to participate in the next ones.
“Let us send a clear message to the world that women’s rights are human rights, and that gender equality is central to all the Sustainable Development Goals.”
It was the final sentence of the UN Secretary-General’s remarks, António Guterres, during the latest session of the 64th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), on last Monday, March 9, at UN headquarters in New York.
Analysing his message under the framework of the Shannon-Weaver communication model, we can easily identify Guterres, in his quality of UN representative, as the information source, media- both traditional and online- as communication channels, the public present on-site and reached via media as the message’s destination. This can be seen as a representative image of a flow of information through a medium in a unidirectional way. A representation that doesn’t reflect the main purpose of the event in itself: discussing progress and gaps in the implementation of the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action between representatives of the UN Member States and civil society organisations.
Because of public health concerns related to the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19, UN measures such as restricting participations to New York-based delegations and civil society representatives, canceling face to face discussions, and suspending side events might be understandable, but reducing the event from two weeks of interactive activities to a one-day procedural meeting is quite ambiguous as a decision.
Hence, some questions arise: in the time where many uprisings around the world have demonstrated how to successfully use ICT, the Internet and Socials in order to replace public areas – where activities are repressed by governments- so they can communicate, discuss their concerns and propose alternatives, how should we understand and explain the lack of use of these technological tools by the UN? Is it a message of voluntary marginalisation of international civil organisations or of a culminated inefficiency of its organisational structure, definitely incompatible with the liberatory potential of ICT.