'We Deserve Better': Lackluster UN Declaration on Women's Rights Draws Ire

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'We Deserve Better': Lackluster UN Declaration on Women's Rights Draws Ire

Gender-equality declaration, formally adopted Monday, criticized as 'a bland reaffirmation of existing commitments' that 'threatens a major step backward'

A young woman from a fishing community in West Bengal in eastern India. She comes from a village that is known for high levels of trafficking of women and girls to other major cities. (Photo: UN Women-Anindit Roy- Chowdhury/flickr/cc)

A political declaration from the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, aimed at achieving global gender equality by 2030, "lacks ambition," according to nearly 1,000 women's rights and feminist organizations from around the world.

In the document, which was formally adopted on Monday, world governments pledge to: bolster implementation of laws related to gender equality; bolster institutions vital to women's empowerment; transform discriminatory norms and stereotypes; close resource gaps; boost accountability; and enhance capacities and data to track progress.

"The overwhelming lack of political commitment and financial resources, plain old sexism and misogyny, along with increasing religious fundamentalisms have affected the quality of the agreements produced by governments within the UN and at other levels."
—Lydia Alpízar, Association for Women's Rights in Development

But a coalition of groups working to advance the human rights of women and girls say the declaration is milquetoast and must be strengthened.

"The text of the political declaration is weak and does not go far enough towards the transformative change that is needed for gender equality," said Lydia Alpízar, executive director of the Association for Women's Rights in Development, in a speech Monday. "We, women of the world in all our diversity, deserve much better than this. We deserve that you put aside your ideological, political and religious differences and fully recognize and affirm the human rights of women and girls and gender justice. Nothing less."

A joint statement issued by 974 groups blasts the UN declaration as "a bland reaffirmation of existing commitments" that "threatens a major step backward" in the realm of women's rights. The organizations also decry the lack of transparency around the crafting of the declaration, which they claim is the result of "several months of closed-door negotiations" from which women's groups were largely excluded.

"[M]any of the gains that women and girls have made are under threat and women and girls worldwide face extraordinary and unprecedented challenges, including economic inequality, climate change and ocean acidification, and rising, violent fundamentalisms," reads the statement. "At a time when urgent action is needed to fully realize gender equality, the human rights and empowerment of women and girls, we need renewed commitment, a heightened level of ambition, real resources, and accountability."

Specifically, the groups are calling for stronger language that:

  • Recognizes the critical and unequivocal role women’s organizations, feminist organizations and women human rights defenders have played in pushing for gender equality, the human rights and empowerment of women and girls. The attempt of governments to marginalize the role of these groups is an affront to women, everywhere.
  • Ensures real accountability for governments including detailed measures to reform and strengthen public institutions to address the structural causes of gender inequality; ensuring an enabling economic environment for women’s rights and gender equality beyond sector-specific financing and gender-responsive budgeting; and more.
  • Recognizes the links between the human rights of women and girls and development. The Political Declaration must reaffirm the links between the human rights of women and girls and development, particularly as women and girls disproportionately are affected by the consequences of under-development.

Even Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who heads UN Women—the standing body that oversees the Commission on the Status of Women—acknowledged portions of the critique even as she championed the goals of the declaration. 

"Yes, much has been done, and much of it worthwhile. However, what we chose to prioritize and act on has not led to irreversible and deep-rooted change," she said in her opening speech to the Commission.

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Her remarks echo the findings of a UN Women report (pdf), also issued Monday, which declares that 20 years after the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action—which stated that "women's empowerment and their full participation on the basis of equality in all spheres of society, including participation in the decision-making process and access to power, are fundamental for the achievement of equality, development and peace"—progress has been spotty to say the least. 

"Twenty years on, it is a hard truth that many of the same barriers and constraints that were recognized by the Beijing signatories are still in force globally," Mlambo-Ngcuka wrote in the report's introduction. "Change has not been deep enough, nor comprehensive, and it is not irreversible."

Alpízar, of the Association for Women's Rights in Development, was more scathing in her assessment:

"[T]oday we must acknowledge that progress achieved has been very limited," she said before the Commission. "The overwhelming lack of political commitment and financial resources, plain old sexism and misogyny, along with increasing religious fundamentalisms have affected the quality of the agreements produced by governments within the UN and at other levels."

She concluded: "This is the moment; there are important opportunities before us. This is the moment when we must have all resources needed—the political commitment and the action—to achieve real transformations."

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