After two weeks of intense negotiations, the 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women ended early on Saturday morning with a strong call to prioritize gender equality and the human rights of women in order to achieve sustainable development.
The Commission was convened at the UN headquarters in New York to address the challenges and achievements of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in improving the lives of women and girls in developing countries. While the MDGs resulted in a reduction of poverty in some respects, the goals furthest from being achieved are those focused on women and girls—particularly on achieving gender equality and improving maternal health. With the MDGs set to expire in 2015, the Commission’s outcome document will help shape priorities for the next global development framework.
The Commission specifically called for a stand-alone goal on gender equality, a move that was applauded by governments and women’s rights organisations.
“A stand-alone goal on gender equality is critical recognition that gender equality and women’s rights are central to all aspects of development, and an urgent priority for government investment,” says Julie McKay, Executive Director of the Australian National Committee for UN Women. “A stand-alone goal needs to recognize the importance of targeting the root causes of gender inequality, including women and girl’s access to quality education, decent work, reproductive rights and their ability to live free from violence in their communities and home.”
The Commission also stated that the post-2015 development agenda must include gender-specific targets across other development goals, strategies, and objectives—especially those related to education, health, and economic justice. The Australian Government championed the inclusion of language calling for governments to address the discriminatory social norms and practices that foster gender inequality, including early and forced marriage and other forms of violence against women and girls, and to address the specific needs of marginalized women and girls.
The Agreed Conclusions reaffirmed the Cairo Programme of Action as well as the Beijing Platform of Action, which called for investments in “quality comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care” including emergency contraception, information and education, safe abortion where allowed by law, and prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections and HIV.
The governments expressed concern that several critical issues related to gender equality were not adequately addressed by the MDGs, including violence against women and girls, harmful practices such as early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation, women’s and adolescents’ sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, women’s and girls’ disproportionate share of unpaid work, particularly unpaid care work, the gender wage gap, women’s equal access to and control of resources including land, women’s inheritance rights and women’s full participation in decision-making at all levels. The Commission also noted the specific and complex needs of women with disabilities and indigenous women.
Despite landing a strong agreement, Ms McKay notes that “it was disappointing to see that a number of conservative governments continued to object to concepts as fundamental as gender and the human rights of women throughout the two weeks negotiations”. She noted particular concern relating to a lack of recognition of the diversity of the family, sexual orientation and gender identity and the intersectionality of discrimination, which were ultimately left out of the Agreed Conclusions.
The Australian Delegation to the Commission on the Status of Women was made up of the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women, Senator the Hon Michaelia Cash, Ambassador for Women and Girls Natasha Stott Despoja AO and senior officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Prime Minister and Cabinet. The Government also included two NGO representatives on the delegation, Ms Julie McKay and Dr Susan Harris-Rimmer. Many Australian NGOs also sent observer delegates.