As alliance members within RESURJ, as well as individually in our own countries together with feminist accomplices, we hold space for ongoing conversations around the relevance and impacts of our presence in regional and global intergovernmental spaces, including the annual session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). In these conversations, we discuss whether the multilateral spaces of the past remain strategic opportunities for feminist advocacy and mobilization for women’s human rights.
For some of us, the interest in these spaces might be tied to a sense of responsibility, of knowing enough or maybe too much to walk away, or a reticence to allow our hard-fought gains to be extinguished. This growing knowledge builds on decades of work by feminists before us, who have fought to create and hold space for feminist voices in multilateral systems. Our advocacy and organizing are, also, inseparable from civic and public spaces being shut down in our countries, making such platforms as the CSW one of the few spaces to which we have access. With this comes the responsibility of getting access to a policy-making space, so gated to our peers, coworkers, sisters, and fellow feminists back home, sometimes even to ourselves! We put our lives and our work on hold to engage in linguistic battles over ideologically charged words and hostile articulations in a foreign tongue with our governments. A conversation so heated, our local ventilation does not fan.
CSW stretches itself over two weeks every March for feminists, human rights advocates and women’s rights groups to follow up on commitments made through the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA). With zizzing hums in underground corridors, push-notifications from negotiations, markups (a)politically and semantically unpacking the annual theme, and the unspoken guilt whirls around priorities and advocacy tradeoffs.
This year CSW64 set to review and appraisal of BPfA as its main theme and put forward the current challenges that affect its implementation and the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of women and the full realization of Agenda 2030, as a review theme.
All changed with the outbreak of COVID-19, and we witnessed cancellations and postponement of all major UN meetings, including the CSW convening. If the United Nations, as a convener, goes back to business as usual, it is foreseeable that the platform will drastically shrink for civil society participation - even in the new virtual normal. This pandemic should not be thought of as an inconvenient event. All stakeholders taking part in intergovernmental arenas should reflect on how their adaptivity to oppression is inconvenient.
As we move forward to celebrate 25 years since the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, where the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted, the South Feminist Community of Care (FemCom)1, hosted by RESURJ and Diva for Equality Fiji, had been planned as a space to take a look back on the Beijing Platform for Action and its 12 critical areas of concerns, locally and globally. Some glimpses are captured in recent national and regional reviews. Yet we felt it was crucial to have a collective reflection and a conversation as feminists from (and living in) the Global South. FemCom conversations were also meant to be extended beyond the CSW timeline; to discuss what mobilization strategies we could borrow from feminists participating in Beijing 1995 that generated both impressive participation of feminists from the south and the landmark Platform for Action; and how we could continue to build upon our organizing journeys with Beijing, some of which is a decade old.
Despite COVID-19 clouding over, FemCom hosted a virtual feminist dialogue on 27 March 2020 to, connect with other South feminists, reflect on global south organizing for Beijing+25, and co-create a space for sharing, collective care and solidarity. Kumudini Samuel, Anita Nayar, and Ana Abelenda* joined 32 participants who planned on attending CSW64 and had actively participated in regional review processes. The two-hour conversation brought in glimpses of feminist organizing around Beijing in 1995, shared memories and insights of Beijing achievements, and speculations of what could be possible with the current review process.
Snailmail and faxes clutched communication among small autonomous women’s rights groups scattered everywhere for years. In the eighties, first in Nairobi and years after. Kumudini recalls, “I remember 1993, the conference on human rights where women groups came together particularly to showcase the issue of violence.” The determination of women’s rights groups to shed light on violence against women traveled to Vienna in the stories feminists collected from all over the world, and through testimonies of women survivors of violence. Kumudini marked it as a huge success to have; the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, followed by CEDAW issuing a general recommendation on violence against women, and the post of the special rapporteur on violence against women was brought to life.
Feminist mobilization was key; letters flew over the oceans to share information, aspirations, and plans. It was conscious and mindful to sit down and write a letter. Everything was carefully planned. In preparation for Beijing, many countries and regions set up networks and coalitions through which they organized themselves, held discussions, and listed their priorities for Beijing. Looking back, all those collaborations spelled out women’s rights are human rights.
To contextualize, war and conflict wounds were still wide open from before and during Beijing; Sri Lanka was caught up in a civil war. Kumudini refers in passing to colleagues from other countries she worked with at the time, such as Pakistan, India, and Nepal that were in conflict, which was thought of as an opportunity at the time; to strategize and determine what to take to the official process. “We worked to influence the platform for action and we proposed language. We had lots of ‘side events’? They weren’t called that!” Kumudini asserts, “a lot of the language was written in the preparatory process. We sharpened that at Cairo and took it to Beijing.” Much of the discussions that steered resolution 1325 were meaningful to Kumudini way beyond its narrow framing and purposefulness in linking treaty bodies to hold states accountable to their obligations. She references the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda and the protracted Yugoslav wars as world events that led up to setting the International Criminal Court, which later recognized rape as a crime against humanity and a war crime. The emphasis at the time came down to defining “rape as a war crime” at that high level, and not inspecting everyday violence, or the political economy of violence, which Kumudini recalls being discussed in the following years.
It is difficult to reflect on Beijing without reflecting on Vienna. The latter is known for bringing about The World Summit for Social Development. And the former stands out as the first summit that opened accreditations to groups from the south, Anita emphasizes: “previously you would have had to be registered in the North to access those platforms! We’re talking twenty thousand organizations from the south that were accredited formally with the UN on equal footing with INGOs, so it was a significant structural reason why we were able to shape the process.”
The World Trade Organization (WTO) was a game-changer; everything looked different after its establishment, and shortly after Beijing.
Despite the BPfA mirroring some of the discussions led by feminists at the grassroots, much of the gains hung around conceptually at the macro level. Such is the case with poverty eradication, as the real solutions seeped at the micro-level. Again, a remarkable gain from Beijing, yet only ‘feminization of poverty’ residues, without actual confrontation of structural issues or restructuring and reformulations of microeconomics to achieve this. “There was a commitment for financial institutions to integrate social equity principles, but there were no actual ways to ensure that we could monitor those institutions” Anita carries on noting there was a strong commitment to uphold human rights, however, privatization was safeguarded as an issue, resulting in corporations not being held accountable. She contentedly states how feminists’ work has progressed massively since Beijing on that matter.
The commitment to full employment was being renewed in Beijing after Copenhagen. In recognition of social problems associated with market forces, many actions emphasized developing partnerships with the private sector, according to Anita, without any recommendations. “How do you achieve full employment? You liberalize!” Women’s economic empowerment was no longer about equity and gendered opportunities. Instead, it was manifested by the help of the WTO and other development forcess, in what is known as “women’s entrepreneurship.”Anita captures in her talking points, how this again digested feminist discourses and gender analyses, eventually incorporated into their policies. Once more, those policies centered men as the breadwinners and women were not seen beyond their social reproductive role.
In the years to follow, unfinished work from Beijing has been the basis for a lot of organizing around work either through corporate accountability or trade justice.
In hindsight, it was the very diverse constituencies of women engaged with the processes that shaped BPfA, bringing about the significant outcomes of Beijing, as highlighted by Anita. The infrastructure across regions and movements then are incomparable to the weakened resources of today. “That concerted thoughtful preparatory process to this conference was led by thirty thousand women,”such infrastructure facilitated the construction of a collective advocacy agenda. Looking back, Anita points out how many countries across the South used the stage very effectively, as was the case with countries from the Pacific and the Carribean, who used it to push and push farther than many governments were willing to go.
Despite the different time and space, the Beijing 25-year review is an opportunity for a critical political moment. Anita draws on the preparatory meeting for Mexico Generation Equality Forum that she participated in with Kumudini in the presence of progressive feminists and south governments. During that meeting, there were clear steps taken to ensure feminists and women’s groups participation in the Mexico forum, by allocating more funding. Yet, this remains much lesser than the efforts made around Beijing.
In retrospect, Beijing review processes used to be rooted in harnessing the United Nations’ power over states for the benefit of concrete translatable action plans at the national and regional levels, as Ana reflects further how difficult it is to not see the contextual shift in multilateralism. The evident rise of the right and fascism, and neoliberalism. She clarifies, “even before COVID-19, but to focus on the pandemic as an example; how mainstream neoliberalism is unable to respond to a pandemic.” Ana continues highlighting where the challenges are; authoritarianism, along with incredible levels of inequalities, she adds, “but the general economic and social modules that have been with us for 25 years since Beijing, are one of the major challenges for the Beijing platform to be implemented.” Ana guides us in her reflection on what changed in feminist organizing since Beijing, she points at feminist agenda cooptation, by setting women empowerment as an example. “As a feminist movement we need to be on guard on how our language is being co opted!”
Moreover, civil society participation has been drastically shrunk and controlled over the years. Echoing Anita’s insights on previous infrastructures enabling feminist influence over BPfA, Ana explains the current challenges of the review process, “feminist organizations are volunteering their time and covering expenses out of their own pockets to get people to the process. We keep asking ourselves, is it really worth our time and resources? At the local and regional levels, where the actual change needs to happen?”
Throughout all of Beijing +5 and +10 and up to Beijing+25, Kumudini thought of the UN Women framing for the information as narrowly defined, “one size supposedly should have fitted all!” She goes on explaining the shifting in context: populist militarized control of civilian spaces turns the UN into a venue to express opposition towards our governments by reviewing the 12 critical areas.
Earlier in March, when CSW64 was suspended due to COVID-19, feminists organizing around the review process spent hours trying to decipher what ‘suspended’ actually meant in UN language. This delayed communication from the United Nations with civil society organizations and relevant stakeholders is consistent in how this year-long process has been layered and inaccessible. It is not too soon for UN Women to communicate effectively how COVID-19 is not a mere inconvenience to the smoothness of this lengthy timeline. In fact, it could be an opportunity to increase transparency in participation and decision-making of the various layers created with and for civil society participation. While many of us grapple with how to continue engaging in regional and global advocacy amidst the pandemic, it is timely to ask how can Beijing+25 processes facilitate a conversation among us all to imagine the world after this pandemic is over?
While Ana lists power and landscape changes over the years since Beijing, she continues to emphasize the need to intentionally engage younger feminists with this “imperfect” process, in a space such as FemCom. There are opportunities unexplored in centering young feminist voices. As well as by strengthning feminist response to multilateral engagements, by making those formal processes more accessible to young feminists even when they are not engaging with it, instead of leaving a vaccum in the space to be happily occupied by the anti-rights movement, states and the private sector.
There is also the continuous need to mobilize and organize towards ensuring strong representation of South feminists, including younger feminists, in leading the various Actions Coalitions. It is problematic and undermines the space to leave the six action coalitions to member states and/or the private sector to take over.
It seems as if COVID-19 has not shook CSW boats. Beyond reorganizing an in-person convening, it is now a question of public health deteriorating as a result of years and years of austerity and privatization. Also, it comes as an opportunity to pause and rethink informal economy, authoritarian states, and social movements, Ana finalizes her thoughts.
Kumudini thinks we need more than conversations on organzing, we need to focus on feminist praxis; how do we ensure diverse participation that is not limited to those who can afford it?
Anita details steps taken in organizing for Generation Equality Fund in Mexico that was planned for May 2020 which has been postponed till spring of the following year; in terms of collective pressure to bring together financial resources and extend it to feminist and women’s groups in the South to ensure their participation. During that preparatory period, Anita explains how it is incomparable to what they had in 1995 yet this has not been just preparation for another global convening. She also thinks of this pause as critical for building analysis, as financial resources are not directed to that kind of work, there needs to be an infrastructure that holds named analysis, such as RESURJ.
For years, RESURJ and DIVA for Equality Fiji have centered their feminist organizing in global advocacy arenas around young and newcomer South feminist voices. What we call now FEMCOM has been our way of organizing to open those gated platforms with intersectional feminist analyses, bold interlinkages between sexual and reproductive justice, and economic and enviromental justice as well. FEMCOM has been a space to hold and unfold nuances that are often overlooked in policy and organizing spaces.
About the speakers
Ana Abelenda is a Uruguayan-Brazilian feminist with residence in Montevideo, Uruguay. Her studies focus on International Relations and Social Anthropology at the University of the Republic. She has led projects on transforming economies such as the feminist propositions for just economies while bridging the knowledge gap around tax and gender justice, including how to combat illicit financial flows from a feminist perspective. She has facilitated workshops on economics and gender for social movements with a focus not only on systemic analysis but on ways to build alternative models of life sustainability from a feminist perspective. She co-leads the AWID program Building Feminist Economies with Felogene Anumo and previously coordinated a program on financing for development from a feminist lens. In her spare time, she likes long walks along the river with her 2-year old Iván, feeding his curiosity and rebelliousness.
Anita Nayar is Director of Regions Refocus, fostering regional dialogues on progressive policies among civil society, governments, sub-regional alliances, and the UN. She has worked nationally and internationally on women’s human rights, economic globalization, development, and climate justice. She was previously Chief of the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service in New York and on the Executive Committee of Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era.
Kumudini Samuel lives and works in Sri Lanka and is a co-founder and currently Director programmes and research at the Women and Media Collective. She is also an Executive Committee member of DAWN engaged in work in its domain of political restructuring and social transformation. She has written and worked on gender and politics, conflict and transitions, women’s movements, and sexuality. She was a member of the Sri Lanka Women’s NGO Forum set up to facilitate women’s engagement in the Beijing process and led a delegation of 50 women from the country to the 4th world conference on women in Beijing in 1995. She joined feminists and activists from South Asia to conceptualise and advocate around the critical area on Women and Armed Conflict during the formulation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.
Edited by Nana Abuelsoud