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Bringing Gender Equality to the World Stage: Equality Now at CSW68

The sixty-eighth session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW68), the largest annual meeting on gender equality hosted by the United Nations in New York, concluded on Friday, March 22, with recommendations (the CSW 68 Agreed Conclusions) from the Commission to all stakeholders, including governments and the private sector, to fully implement existing commitments and obligations to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls by addressing poverty and strengthening institutions and financing with a gender perspective. 

Equality Now took the opportunity CSW provides to raise issues of concern, make recommendations, and connect with each other and our partners as well as government Ministers, UN Ambassadors and officials, parliamentarians, and civil society leaders. This year, Equality Now hosted, co-hosted, or spoke at more than a dozen events, as well as holding strategic meetings with people present at CSW.

The Issues Facing Women Globally

Legal Equality

The theme for CSW68 was economic equality and empowerment of women, and we know that without legal equality, economic equality is impossible. We also know that legal and economic equality are not just good for women, but for everyone in society. As clearly reaffirmed by the Commission in its Agreed Conclusions, “achieving gender equality, empowering all women and girls, and the full realization of their human rights are essential to achieving sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth and sustainable development.”  And States are called on by the Commission to “eliminate any barriers, legal inconsistencies and discriminatory policies and laws, where they exist, that impede women’s equal rights and women’s economic empowerment,” as well as “[p]romote and enforce non-discriminatory law, social infrastructure and policies for sustainable development…”

On the second day of CSW, Equality Now Global Executive Director S. Mona Sinha stood in one of the largest chambers of the United Nations headquarters and addressed members of parliament from around the world during the International Parliamentary Union (IPU) and UN Women’s annual session (recording). She spoke about prioritizing poverty reduction to achieve gender equality and focused on the link between discriminatory laws and women’s poverty, as well as offering good practice examples of legislative actions that parliaments should take to address it. Specifically, she shared three key recommendations, telling them:

  1. First, eliminate all sex discriminatory laws – repeal or amend all sexist laws, not just those directly related to economic rights.
  2. Second, put good laws and policies in place and start with your constitutions – make sure equality provisions in your constitutions don’t make exceptions for personal status, religious or customary laws, and that they apply equally to all women in your country.
  3. Third, support feminist movements such as the Global Campaign for Equality in Family Law and the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, which have been proven to make a difference in law reform efforts, bringing positive change not just for women and girls but also their families and communities.”

She also pointed out that the very country everyone had traveled to in order to attend the IPU, the United States, “does not have sex or gender equality in the Constitution because the Equal Rights Amendment, the ERA, has not yet been rightfully incorporated following the required ratification by 38 states in 2020. This means that the rights of women and girls are more easily dismissed, taken away even, by changes in the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government.”

Constitutional Equality

The day before Mona’s speech, we started off the first week focusing on constitutional equality as a catalyst for addressing economic inequality around the world at an event we co-hosted with the ERA Coalition on “US Economic Inequality: The Equal Rights Amendment – Catalyst for Change.” Experts, including from the UN’s Working Group on discrimination against women and girls as well as WORLD Policy Analysis Center, and activists, including youth leaders, underscored the importance of enshrining equality in the most authoritative legal document in the United States, with the ERA Coalition’s Zakiya Thomas stressing that, “The ERA would give the US Congress increased power to protect against unequal pay, workplace harassment, medical discrimination, domestic assault, crimes against women and girls, and more.” Equality Now’s Antonia Kirkland concluded, “It is crucial that the ERA is finally incorporated into the Constitution so that no one in this country is left behind.”

Equality in Family Law

The importance of legal equality in addressing economic inequality was also front and center in a packed event co-hosted by the Global Campaign for Equality in Family Law (GCEFL), of which Equality Now is a founding member and the current Secretariat. The invigorating discussion included representatives from governments, the United Nations, the World Bank, and leading global, regional, and national campaigns dedicated to reforming discriminatory family laws. Amongst them, Nada Al-Nashif – Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a video statement, called on States to take concrete actions to reform family laws that discriminate against women and girls. Antonia Orellana, the Minister of Women and Gender Equality from Chile spoke of how her government was undertaking reform of the family law, which currently allows husbands control of marital property owned by their wives – a reform made all the more urgent by slowed recovery efforts following recent deadly wildfires. Nehza Belkachla of the Democratic Association of Women in Morocco highlighted how discriminatory inheritance laws disproportionately impoverish women and the importance of the pending reforms in her country. Finally, GCEFL’s Hyshyama Hamin emphasized, “There needs to be a strong realization that equality in the family is a crucial way to advance gender equality in all other areas. The national, regional, and global efforts of courageous groups and activists pushing for reform of discriminatory family laws need to be amplified and resourced”.

Ending Sexual Violence

In its Agreed Conclusions,  the Commission expressed “deep concern that women and girls may be particularly vulnerable to violence because of multidimensional poverty, including intergenerational poverty, disability and limited or lack of access to justice, effective legal remedies and psychosocial services, including protection, rehabilitation and reintegration, and to health-care services.” 

It was precisely this concern, and the understanding that only an intersectional approach will lead to better sexual violence laws and better implementation, that led Equality Now and our partners to host the event “Sexual Violence: Strengthening Institutions to Eradicate Barriers to Justice for Women and Girls with Disabilities”. The event brought together experts, policymakers, activists, and survivors to share experiences and investigate some of the barriers to access to justice faced by women with disabilities who are survivors of sexual violence, reflect on solutions, and offer further recommendations for addressing the issue.

Equality Now’s Bárbara Jiménez-Santiago noted that “40-68 percent of girls with disabilities experience sexual violence, and girls with disabilities are five times more likely to become victims of abuse.” Gloria Camacho, President of the Committee of Experts of the Follow-up Mechanism for the Belem do Pará Convention (MESECVI), cited “physical barriers, fear of reporting, not being believed, and lack of accommodations for disabilities” as just some of the obstacles women with disabilities face when trying to access justice for sexual violence, and said that “most of the measures States have taken so far have not had a significant impact” on addressing them.

Consent was another important aspect of the discussion, with speakers pointing out that many countries still have force-based definitions of rape, rather than focusing on lack of consent. Others noted that even in cases where consent is considered, women with disabilities can be left out because, in the words of Silvia Quan from Colectivo Vida Independiente de Guatemala, “there is no way to have consensual relations as a woman with disabilities because we are not believed to be able to provide our consent.”

Mary Angel García-Ramos of Women Enabled International emphasized the importance of data: “Without numbers, we are invisible, which is why we need disaggregated data to know the level of abuse, femicide, and other violence that happens to women with disabilities. Right now, it seems we don’t even count when we’re dead!” Representatives of other disability rights organizations also echoed her call for ensuring a “Nothing about us, without us” approach to reforming sexual violence laws, policies, and their implementation.

Importantly, the event brought together experts from a variety of backgrounds who can make change: in addition to Gloria Camacho from MESECVI, representatives of the governments of Belgium and Chile, and of the CEDAW Committee and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) also spoke at the event, outlining progress, learnings, and future plans.

Gender-based violence, more broadly, was the focus of a big event on the first day of CSW, “From Commitment to Action: Accelerating achievements of Generation Equality Forum (GEF) on Gender-Based Violence (GBV) in Kenya.” Aisha Jumwa, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary with the Ministry of Gender, Culture, the Arts, and Heritage, affirmed that “Together we can create societies where all women and men, boys and girls, live dignified lives that they desire and deserve and that are free from all forms of violence,” and Equality Now’s Africa Office Director Faiza Mohamed reminded leaders of the need for swift action, declaring “We urgently must work together to accelerate efforts and build momentum in our fight against GBV. Only then can we have the audacity to hope to end GBV in our lifetime.”

Digital Rights and Tech-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence

Although it was not an official theme of CSW68, the issue of tech-facilitated gender-based violence (TFGBV) was continuously raised throughout the two-week conference. In its Agreed Conclusions, the Commission emphasized that “new technological developments can perpetuate existing patterns of poverty, inequality, discrimination and all forms of violence, including gender-based violence that occurs through or is amplified by the use of technology.”  The Commission urged States to provide “equal access to technologies that are safe, affordable and accessible . . . while taking measures to prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls that occurs through or is amplified by the use of technology”.

Amanda Manyame, Equality Now’s Digital Law and Rights Advisor, noted in her statement to the CSW official “Interactive dialogue on the emerging issue ‘Artificial intelligence to advance gender equality: challenges and opportunities’” that addressing inequality in AI ecosystems systemically and structurally, following a feminist informed, human rights-based framework, requires, among other things, the adoption of Equality-by-Design principles and a human-rights-based approach throughout all phases of digital technology development, deployment, and use.” She encouraged all member states to “fulfill their obligations under international law and agreements such as the SDGs and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women by integrating a gender equality and human rights approach into the development of AI governance mechanisms.”

TFGBV, and specifically tech-facilitated sexual exploitation and abuse (TFSEA), was the focus of a discussion Equality Now co-organized along with the governments of Spain and Colombia, as well as MESECVI and UNFPA, in which experts, survivors, and policymakers explored national, regional, and international responses to the problem, including a new model law that MESECVI is working on and hopes will be useful well beyond the Americas region. In addition, Deputy Ambassador Arlene Tickner of Colombia and Carmen Montón, Permanent Observer Ambassador of Spain to the Organization of American States, spoke about the growing prevalence of online violence, and Amb. Tickner noted that the upcoming Global Digital Compact “is a fundamental opportunity to introduce transformative ideas.” 

Marcela Hernández Oropa, representing the survivor-led movement in favor of the “Ley Olimpia” in Mexico, said the new law matters because it will give more credibility to survivors’ experiences: “What do victims need for justice? To be believed!” Rosa Celorio, Associate Dean of George Washington University Law School, summed up the need for better laws, saying, “The same human rights in the real world also apply in the digital space, though there’s added complexity because we’re not just talking about State actors. You can’t resolve everything with the law, but what international law gives you are norms and principles, even for businesses and private actors.”

Survivors of sex trafficking shared their experiences at the event “Better protections for women and girls from trafficking in human beings for the purpose of sexual exploitation,” and many emphasized the increasingly close connection between the online and offline worlds. Equality Now’s Global Lead on Legal Equality and Access to Justice, Antonia Kirkland, stressed that “sexual exploitation is a gross human rights violation, no matter what method is used – analog or digital.”

And even for another major event where it was not the focus, TFGBV came up several times. The event “Women’s Rights and Choices in a Digital World: Why We Need a Feminist Global Digital Compact”, was convened by the Alliance for Universal Digital Rights (AUDRi) – of which Equality Now is a founding member – as well as by several other key partners, and with support from the governments of Brazil, Denmark, Finland, and the United States, along with the Global Partnership for Action on Gender-based Online Harassment and Abuse, UNFPA, and UN Women. In a very engaging and encouraging discussion, attendees heard from real policymakers who are deeply committed to ensuring that there is a gender lens in the Global Digital Compact.

In addition to these, there were many other events we participated in on issues as wide-ranging as child marriage, female genital mutilation, progress on addressing gender-based violence in Kenya, women’s role shaping justice systems, financing women’s justice needs, and more. Looking at it all, it becomes very clear how much work remains to be done to achieve true gender equality. But there is hope, and it all begins with like-minded individuals demanding change. 

Coming Together for Change

One of the most significant aspects of the CSW conference is not just the vast range of important women’s rights issues that are addressed; it’s also the number of organizations, governments, experts, survivors, policymakers, and other stakeholders who come together. It’s too much for one individual, one organization, or even one sector of society to do alone – we need to work together, keeping each other going, sharing ideas, and holding each other accountable.

Coalitions and Collaboration

Whether it’s working with partners to organize a side event, participating in a conversation as a member of a coalition, amplifying the voices and ideas of survivors, or collaborating with policymakers on creating a model law, working together is a key part of how Equality Now creates change and impact. This CSW, we worked with over 20 partner organizations, 10 UN member states, and numerous UN bodies and international organizations as part of side events, in addition to having dozens of cups of coffee with key officials, meeting new potential partners, and planning for even more future conversations and collaborations. 

When reflecting on the experience of CSW, Equality Now’s Sandra Ramírez said she felt that member states “acknowledged our hard work in the region [Latin America and the Caribbean] to promote legal changes and strengthen their implementation.” Her colleague Sofía Quiroga added, “I have also been able to interact with members of embassies from different countries with whom we talked about the importance of ensuring that all these issues we discuss not only remain in CSW[‘s agenda] but are also incorporated into the agendas of feminist foreign policy.”

Convening Stakeholders for Change

How do we know that collaboration is the way to make real change? Because we can see it happening in real time at CSW:

  • If we and our partners raise the issues again and again, they take root. As Equality Now’s Amanda Manyame said of TFSEA, “A few years ago, we had to explain what it is, now everyone is talking about it even though it’s not officially the theme this year.”
  • If we invite governments to talk openly about the challenges they face in making change and bring in experts and others who can offer practical solutions,  they start to make real commitments to change. For example, the Minister of Women from Brazil, Cida Gonçalves, said, “This debate will help, not only Brazil but worldwide, the debate on democracy and communication on social networks.”
  • If we work with international and regional bodies such as MESECVI to create model laws for States to use, governments will start to go beyond talking the talk to walking the walk.

We’re especially excited about:

  • Bringing commitments made at CSW to the Summit of the Future in September, and in particular, the adoption of a strong Global Digital Compact and Pact of the Future, including the revitalization of the CSW itself.
  • The 30th Anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action and the important CSW review of its implementation in 2025, including toward full legal equality on the basis of sex/gender.
  • The election Campaign for a feminist woman UN Secretary-General in 2026 was discussed during an official side event with IDLO and others on women in decision-making – join us in signing on to our coalition partner, 1 for 8 billion’s letter to all UN member states calling for support!

Stay tuned to hear more about the next steps on these and other initiatives from CSW68