UN Commission on the Status of Women Concludes with Recommendations to Eradicate Violence against Women and Girls

The fifty-seventh session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) concluded last week with its adoption of a historic set of conclusions, agreed to by 131 States, on the prevention and elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls. [UN News Centre] The agreed conclusions, which were drafted with the participation of civil society, urge governments and other relevant actors to take a series of concrete steps in four areas: legal and policy frameworks and accountability; structural and underlying causes and risk factors; multi-sectoral services and programs for victims; and collection and analysis of evidence on the incidence, causes, costs and risk factors of violence against women and girls.  The overarching goal of these recommendations is to eliminate and prevent such violence by increasing visibility and understanding of this widespread problem, improving the services available to victims, and decreasing impunity for perpetrators.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed news of the agreement, and referred to violence against women as, “a heinous human rights violation, global menace, a public health threat and a moral outrage.”  The Center for Reproductive Rights, a non-governmental organization, commended the conclusions as an affirmation of existing State duties, announcing it was “pleased that a U.N. policy-making body has now reaffirmed [women’s fundamental reproductive rights] as protected by the standards already established by numerous other human rights bodies worldwide.”

The Commission’s last attempt to draft an agreement on the violence against women, in 2003, was met by failure as member states were unable to reach agreement. While the declaration of the Commission is non-binding, diplomats and rights activists say it carries enough global weight to pressure countries to improve the lives of women and girls. [Al Jazeera]

Fifty-Seventh Session and Agreed Conclusions

The focus of this year’s CSW gathering, the eradication of violence against women, culminated in an agreed conclusions document that reflected this approach. Among the priorities found in last week’s sixteen-page agreed conclusion document are “the establishment of multi-sectoral services for survivors of violence, including for health, psychological support and counselling, as well as the need to protect the right to sexual and reproductive health. Ending impunity is also highlighted in the text in the context of punishing perpetrators, along with improving collection of evidence and responding to victims.” UN News Centre.

The agreed conclusions adopted during this year’s CSW places special emphasis on reaffirming States’ existing international obligations related to the prevention of violent gender discrimination. These include, inter alia, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Agreed Conclusions CSW57, paras. 3-5. The conclusions also cite UN Security Council and UN Human Rights Council resolutions. Id. at paras. 8-9.

Notably, the Commission defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women and girls, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life. The Commission also noted the economic and social harm caused by such violence.” Id. at para. 11. Furthermore, the document explicitly recognizes the historical and structural roots of violence against women and highlights the negative, ongoing impact of gender stereotypes, discrimination, and unequal power dynamics. Id. at para. 10.

Importantly, the Agreed Conclusions reject the invocation of traditional values or customs as a justification for failing to eradicate violence against women and girls. Paragraph 14 of the agreed conclusions reads, “The Commission urges States to strongly condemn all forms of violence against women and girls and to refrain from invoking any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination as set out in the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women.” The Commission also emphasized equality through education (paragraph 17), legislation (paragraph 18), and economic empowerment (paragraph 19). Furthermore, the agreed conclusions found linkages between violence and women and health, HIV/AIDS, poverty eradication, food security, peace and security, humanitarian assistance and crime prevention (paragraph 20).

The Agreed Conclusions’ adoption followed months of advocacy and negotiation. [The Guardian]  In a press statement, Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, stated:

The Agreed Conclusions are a testimony to the commitment of Member States to do the right thing, to prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls. In the last two weeks during the meeting in New York, and in the lead-up to this session, we witnessed global engagement and mobilization, high-profile advocacy by civil society, and determined leadership by many Member States. Expectations of the world’s women and girls were extremely high for this session of the Commission […] The document highlights the importance of putting in place multi-sectoral services for survivors of violence, including for health, psychological support and counseling, social support in the short and long term. It draws attention to the need for services to protect the right to sexual and reproductive health.

The conclusions’ negotiation was not without controversy, however, as numerous States and civil organizations disagreed over topics such as access to emergency contraception, abortion and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. In a widely-endorsed statement released during the 57th CSW session, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership expressed concern about the possibility of conservative CSW Member States derailing the process and undermining previous agreements, conceivably leading the CSW to “waver in its commitment to advance women’s human rights.”  The statement warned that “[c]ustoms, tradition or religious considerations must not be tolerated to justify discrimination and violence against women and girls whether committed by State authorities or non-state actors.”

Other participants and observers expressed similar concerns, in light of several States’ objections on the language related to sexual and reproductive rights. [The Guardian: Global DevelopmentThe Guardian: Poverty Matters Blog]  Egypt, in particular, had signaled its support for language that would allow for a traditional values exception to implementing the conclusions, but ultimately did not block the Agreed Conclusions’ adoption. [Al Jazeera]  However, another contentious issue – protection for sex workers – was reportedly dropped during negotiations. [The Guardian]

Though the priority theme during this year’s Commission was the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women, each yearly meeting also addresses other pertinent matters, divided into “review themes” and “emerging issues.” This year’s review theme concerned the equal sharing of responsibilities between women and men, including caregiving in the context of HIV/AIDSUN Women: CSW 57. Review theme topics are retrieved from the agreed conclusions adopted during former CSW conferences. The emerging issue discussion focused on  key gender equality issues to be reflected in the post-2015 development framework. 

Priority themes for CSW are decided ahead of time by ECOSOC (a list of themes spanning from 2010-2014 can be found on pages two and three of this 2009 resolution).

About the Commission on the Status of Women

CSW was established by UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Resolution 11(II) of 21 June 1946 with the mandate of preparing recommendations and reports to ECOSOC on promoting women’s rights in political, economic, civil, social and educational fields. See United Nations, Short History of the Commission on the Status of Women, p. 2. It is the principal global policy-making body dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women. Each year, representatives of CSW Member States gather at UN Headquarters for ten working days to evaluate progress on gender equality, identify challenges, set global standards and formulate concrete policies to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment worldwide. Id.  The Commission also makes recommendations to ECOSOC on urgent problems requiring immediate attention in the field of women’s rights. Id.  Forty-five UN member states belong to the CSW at any given time; members are elected for a period of four years. See UN Women, About the Commission.  A list of prior agreed conclusions can be accessed and downloaded here.

Michelle Bachelet’s Resignation from UN Women

Following the conclusion of the 57th session, Michelle Bachelet informed UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of her resignation as Executive Director of UN Women, which supports the Commission on the Status of Women.

Bachelet has been head of the UN entity mandated to promote gender equality since its creation in 2010. Ban Ki-moon lauded Bachelet’s governance, stating, “Her visionary leadership gave UN Women the dynamic start it needed. Her fearlessness in advocating for women’s rights raised the global profile of this key issue. Her drive and compassion enabled her to mobilize and make a difference for millions of people across the world.” There was no mention of Bachelet’s successor in the Secretary-General’s announcement.

Bachelet plans to return to Chile, where it is rumored she is considering running for president, a post she held directly before joining UN Women. [The Guardian] But, “Be sure that I will continue working for women’s empowerment and gender equality,” Bachelet said.