Written by Kate Lappin

The UN Commission on the Status of Women this year took place in a hostile climate – both inside and outside the UN. Temperatures outside fell below zero and Blizzard Stella shut down the UN for a day. Inside, there was a hostile culture with registered ‘hate groups’ included in the official US delegation and repeated state references to rigid concepts of family, suggestions that unpaid care work are ‘cultural’ and a pleasure for women as well as familiar resistance to sexual reproductive health and rights, sexual orientation and gender identity.

APWLD members at the Women Major Group Strategy Meeting that took place in the backdrop of CSW61

The focus of the meeting was “Women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work” and, as is often the case, much of the time negotiating was taken up trying to defend existing language and commitments. Russia and the US teamed up to oppose inclusion of language around labour rights, arguing against references to specific International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions and obligations as well as the role of the ILO in implementing obligations to deliver Decent Work for women. They also blocked the inclusion of the right to a ‘living wage’, something the US has opposed for years.

But within this hostile climate there were some wins. And we should celebrate our wins, given that they are increasingly rare and hard fought. Four things that were achieved for the first time in the Agreed Conclusions:

  1. Committing to gender responsive just transitions in the context of climate change
  2. Recognising the role of trade unions in addressing economic inequalities and the gender pay gap
  3. More detailed methods to ensure the redistribution of unpaid care work
  4. Referring to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP)

1. A Gender Just Transition

APWLD and many allies in feminist, climate and labour rights movements have been making the case for the transition to low carbon economies to be planned in ways that are gender-just and equitable. The concept of a ‘just transition’ was included in the Paris Agreement, a big win in the fight to recognize that workers displaced by climate change deserve justice. But we wanted that concept to be broadened and to commit to planned transitions that address the sexual division of labour and imagines economies that are more gender equitable and sustainable for all people. The language in paragraph 40.hh is a great first step to doing that:

  1. hh. Develop and adopt gender-responsive strategies on mitigation and adaptation to climate change, in line with international and regional instruments, to support the resilience and adaptive capacities of women and girls to respond to the adverse effects of climate change, with the aim to strengthen their economic empowerment, through inter alia, the promotion of their health and well being, as well as access to sustainable livelihoods, including in the context of a just transition of the workforce;

Lobbying to get this into the Agreed Conclusions took a lot of work, not just at CSW, but in preparatory meetings and at the UNFCCC COP.  We prepared a fact sheet for CSW documenting a bit of the negotiated background that you can read here. Thanks to the Philippines delegation and the Pacific Islands governments for championing this paragraph and the other on climate change, to UN ESCAP and UN Women Asia Pacific for including the concept in the regional preparatory meeting and the civil society solidarity between trade unions and feminist climate activists (such as DIVA), we have taken a step toward a shared vision for a Feminist Fossil Fuel Free Future.

2. Trade unions reduce inequalities

There’s a lot of evidence that the obscene and growing levels of wealth and income inequality are, in part, a result of the loss of trade union density and power. Even the IMF has recognized that higher trade union density results in lower inequality and the ILO found that collective bargaining agreements play a key role in reducing inequality and gender wage gaps. This link hasn’t been explicitly recognized in intergovernmental text before, but at CSW, governments included a new paragraph that drew these links together:

  1. The Commission also expresses concern over the persistently low wages earned by women workers which frequently prevent women from providing decent and dignified living conditions for themselves and their families, and recognizes the important role of trade unions and social dialogue in addressing persistent economic inequalities, including the gender pay gap.

APWLD’s CSW side event, ‘Escalating Global Strikes’. Speakers (l to r) Daisy Arago, Nazma Akter, Verónica Montúfar, Kate Lappin and Paulina Davis

Earlier versions of the paragraph included stronger recognition of the negative impact globalization has had on inequalities and the gap between minimum and living wages. The proposed paragraph drew from various sources we had compiled and was championed by Canada (thanks to the strong presence and persistence of Canadian feminist trade unionists).

3. Unpaid Care Work

Target 5.4 of the SDGs requires states to recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies, and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family. The Agreed Conclusions went further in detailing the obligations and the public services that should be covered committing governments to:

  1. Undertake all appropriate measures to recognize, reduce and redistribute women’s and girls’ disproportionate share of unpaid care and domestic work by promoting policies and initiatives supporting the reconciliation of work and family life and the equal sharing of responsibilities between women and men, through flexibility in working arrangements without reductions in labour and social protections, provision of infrastructure, technology, and public services, such as water and sanitation, renewable energy, transport, information technologies, as well as accessible, affordable and quality childcare and care facilities and by challenging gender stereotypes and negative social norms and promoting men’s participation and responsibilities as fathers and caregivers;

APWLD and other organisations marked the absence of civil society representatives due to visa refusals with empty chairs at side events. Pictured are our Labour Organising Committee Focal Points, Daisy Arago (l) and Nazma Akter (r)

4. Recognising the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

The ‘emerging issue’ of this year’s CSW was officially the ‘empowerment of Indigenous women’ (obviously not just an emerging issue but every year has a ‘priority theme’, ‘review theme’ and an ‘emerging issue’). Given the inclusion of the rights of Indigenous women in the official agenda they seemed to get little attention in either the negotiations or the formal side events. The agreed conclusions did include an important connection for the first time to the Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples’ (DRIP):

  1. gg. Take measures to promote the economic empowerment of indigenous women including by ensuring access to quality and inclusive education and meaningful participation in the economy by addressing multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination they face and barriers, including violence, and promote their participation in relevant decision-making processes at all levels and in all areas, and respecting and protecting their traditional and ancestral knowledge, and noting the importance of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, for indigenous women and girls;

CTUHR Executive Director and APWLD member Daisy Arago speaks at the Asia Pacific NGO Dialogue with the Australian Human Rights Commission

Given the difficulty of getting non-consensus declarations and conventions referenced into the text, this was an achievement even though the earlier version recognizing the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) was deleted and replaced with an unacceptable ‘promote their participation in relevant decision making’. APWLD members and other civil society held a meeting with the Australian delegation facilitated by the Australian National Human Rights Commission where they committed to championing this paragraph (having included Australian Indigenous women leaders in their delegation) and were also surprisingly supportive of the range of issues raised by civil society at the meeting.

At the Asia Pacific NGO Dialogue held by the Australian Human Rights Commission, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins (second from left) and other members of the Commission listen to civil society representatives

Given how difficult it can be to achieve any progress within UN intergovernmental spaces, it is now critical that these small steps be followed up with action at the local and regional levels. While often the Agreed Conclusions are simply consigned to the UN archives and useful only to reference at future meetings, APWLD will be following up on the new commitments to offer proposals for the just transition required to deliver Development Justice to women in our region and globally.