Les Nubians, the Grammy-nominated duo of French-Cameroonian sis-ters, performed at a March 10 event hosted by UN Women.
Les Nubians, the Grammy-nominated duo of French-Cameroonian sis-ters, performed at a March 10 event hosted by UN Women.

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)– The most recent, 59th, session of the Commission on the Status of Women drew representatives of more than 1,100 nongovernmental groups who participated in over 600 events across the city, according to U.N. officials, making it the largest ever feminist gathering at the U.N., nearly double the annual average participation.

Part of the boost came from this year’s observation of the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, a United Nation’s document adopted in 1995, which promulgates women’s rights as human rights.

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An unusual number of state delegations–ministers and senior officials from 167 countries–at the meeting, which took place March 9-20, reported on how they are working to elevate the status of women and girls at home.

Sierra Leone, for instance, said it has trained police to investigate sexual and domestic violence and has implemented programs to educate communities on laws related to violence against women.

Several Latin American countries said they have reformed parental leave policies and expanded the reach of child care services in an effort to reduce obstacles to women’s employment.

Energy and verve poured out from big splashy media events and clever campaign brandings, such as "Planet 50:50," a push to realize gender equality across the globe by 2030, the next big target date for major development goals to emerge later this year.

In the background, however, lurked recent worrisome setbacks to women’s rights.

In the past year, Boko Haram kidnapped schoolgirls in northeast Nigeria, the anti-feminist Islamic State has risen in the Middle East, cyber harassment of women has emerged as a virulent form of gender-specific intimidation and women’s access to reproductive health care is under growing pressure, even in some parts of Europe.

Twenty years after the world committed itself to advancing the status of women, up to 70 percent of all women still experience violence in their lifetime, according to the World Economic Forum’s latest report. No country on earth has achieved full gender equality and in many countries progress has been deplorably slow. At the current rate of progress, it will take another 80 years, until 2095, to close the global gender gap for economic participation and opportunity.

During the meeting, the Commission on the Status of Women issued a report blaming Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, along with the conflict against Hama last summer, for worsening Palestinian women’s poverty, employment, food security, access to justice for victims of violence and health care access.

Female Refugees Draw Attention

In another report, the commission outlined results from the two most recent sessions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, widely known in these policy circles as CEDAW. One notable outcome was the adoption by member states of a recommendation that in itself spotlights a growing problem: women driven from their homelands by armed conflict and other forms of gender violence.

The recommendation recognizes trafficking, rape, the threat of forced/early marriage and other forms of gender-based violence and persecution as "legitimate grounds for international protection in law and in practice" and obliges states to protect its female citizens from such threats beyond their borders.

Each year this gathering sets a priority theme and produces policy recommendations for the year ahead to guide governments and organizations.

Last year, it was implementing the Millennium Development Goals with respect to women and girls. In 2013, it was pushing to eliminate and prevent all forms of violence against women and girls (which is already outlawed in the 188 countries that are party to CEDAW).

This year, in the spirit of the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, the theme was taking stock of unfinished business left by that two-decade-old agenda.

In keeping with that, member states produced a declaration reaffirming their overall commitment to speeding up their implementation of gender equality reforms to meet the 2030 deadline U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon set at the official opening of the commission.

However, a coalition of women’s groups dismissed the declaration. In their Women’s Statement on the 20th Anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women they called it "a bland reaffirmation of existing commitments that fails to match the level of ambition in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and in fact threatens a major step backward."

The declaration has also drawn criticism for doing little to confront new threats. In the 20 years since the Beijing Declaration antifeminist regimes have come to power and armed conflicts have erupted in parts of the Middle East, Eastern Europe and West Africa.

Massive Networking Opportunity

Disappointments with official tenor and outcomes, however, seem widely offset by the chance for a massive global exchange of ideas and information.

Increasingly, participants told Women’s eNews, the networking and interactions among official delegates, experts and advocates is eclipsing the importance of official outcome documents.

The informal part of the meeting can also set its own agenda for the next time everyone is back in New York City.

Liesl Gerntholtz, executive director of women’s rights for Human Rights Watch, says a panel this year on women and tax rights grew out of informal discussions in past years of feminist economic analysis.

Gerntholtz also prizes the chance for civil society advocates and high-level policymakers to cross paths. "It’s an opportunity for representatives from every country to hear from people they don’t generally hear from," she said in a brief interview during one of the many sideline panel events.

Several other participants shared their perspectives on the value of the meeting in short videos posted on UN Women’s website.

The dozen or so panel discussions, presentations, briefings and other events I attended tackled a host of topics that are loosely described as "traditional" issues: access to education, maternal health and political participation.

Others focused on "emerging" issues such as women’s roles in countering violent extremism.

In the "controversial" category were funding for nongovernmental organizations that provide abortion services to rape victims. For socially conservative societies, the issue of transgender rights is also controversial.

Hustling between these events over the course of several consecutive days runs you through emotional ups and downs, from exuberance to despair, all backed up by anecdotes and statistics.

At one meeting, the U.N. secretary general hailed 1,000 CEOs for committing their countries over the past five years to gender-equality measures set out by the Women’s Empowerment Principles.

At another high-level event, however, Joannes Paulus Yimbesalu, 2015 winner of Queen Elizabeth II’s Young Leadership Award, warned of the rise of child marriage in his native Cameroon and that in some parts of the country half of all girls are subjected to female genital mutilation, breast ironing or both by the time they are 9 years old.

The meeting itself was book-ended by a high-low episode concerning the San Francisco-based ride sharing company Uber, which helped sponsor the gathering. At the start of the meeting Uber announced a partnership with UN Women in which it pledged to create 1 million jobs for women by 2020 in support of gender equality.

On the last day of the meeting, however, as The Guardian reported, UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka backed out of the deal under pressure from trade unions who pointed to accusations against the company for failing to adequately protect female passengers from rape and sex assault by its drivers.

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