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International Women’s Day, 2023
A New Global Architecture to Defend & Promote Rights of Women & Girls

The following opinion piece is part of series to mark International Women’s Day, March 8.

Pakistani women peacekeepers in the audience at the National University of Science and Technology in Islamabad, where Secretary-General António Guterres delivered an address on the topic of peacekeeping. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten
On the one hand, the special procedures under UN Human Rights focused on women should be re-organized and on the other hand, country level programs supporting women should become more unified. Meanwhile, a new global platform, building on the Generation Equality Forum, could bring these two complementary but vastly different realm of works, together to engage the global public and the leaders.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, Mar 6 2023 (IPS) - If you want to have a good reading on women and young girls’ activism, there is a high chance that you have missed an incredibly interesting report.

Entitled Girls’ and Young Women’s Activism, the publication is a product of the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls, formally a special procedure mechanism within the United Nation Human Rights, officially the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The blueprint offers a real and practical guidance on about how the direct involvement and engagement of women and young girls is essential if governments are serious about achieving gender equality and ends, once for all, any type of gender-based discriminations.

The Working Group is composed by five experts, mostly academician but also practitioners, on women’s rights and despite the low profile, it maintains a real busy annual schedule that makes its work incredibly relevant and valuable.

It does not only meet three times a year for planning and coordination and but also holds a dialogue at the Human Rights Council in June in addition to reporting to the General Assembly in October/November and also participates at the annual March meeting of the Commission on the Status of the Women.

On the top of all these tasks and consider that their commitment with the Working Group proceeds along their official and equally demanding full-time jobs, the members also conduct annual visits to member states to monitor and assess their work to protect women and girls against discrimination.

The problem is that its work does get neither visibility nor recognition.

One of the reasons is that the UN human rights architecture promoting and defending the rights of women is too complex and fragmented and requires a drastic overhaul.

There are too many mechanisms often with an almost overlapping mandates tasked to protect women’s rights, perhaps also a reflection on the inevitable rivalries at the UN and the consequent compromises that are always struck by the member states.

In addition to the Working Group, there is also the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, currently Ms. Reem Alsalem, who started her tenure on August 2021.

Her mandate is stronger and certainly more visible than those of the members of the Working Group even though she operates within UN Human Rights.

Though the former mechanism is focused on fighting discrimination and the latter is instead exclusively aimed at assessing cases of violence against women, you might wonder if it could be more effective and value for money to devise a more united approach, a more effective modality to monitor and defend the rights of women around the world.

Certainly, we cannot discount the fact that we are talking about special procedures mechanisms within the Human Rights Council, an intergovernmental body within the UN that is actually the only forum where the member states of the UN discuss, share and peer reviews their human rights.

The special procedures are important because they uniquely involve top experts in matters of human rights and their contributions provide even more legitimacy to the important work that the UN System is doing to uphold the rights of vulnerable persons around the world.

A possibility to strengthen their work could be to imagine a different “governance” that maximizes their opinions and reviews, even with the possibility to provide full time tenures and adequate resources to support their work and give it the visibility it deserves.

Let’s also bear in mind that in matter of women’s rights, there is also the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women that should be considered as the guardian of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women known as CEDAW.

It is composed by twenty-three experts and one of its main tasks is to “assist States parties in the preparation of initial and subsequent periodic reports” and holding constructive dialogue with them and issue the so called “concluding observations” on what the member states present to show their commitment to CEDAW.

To help with coordination among mechanisms, there is actually, at least on the paper, a very lean and weak coordinating mechanism called Platform of Independent UN and Regional Experts Mechanisms on Elimination of Discrimination and Violence against Women, or EDVAW Platform.

Officially started in 2017, the platform aims to “promote thematic and institutional cooperation between the UN and regional expert mechanisms on the elimination of discrimination and violence against women and girls with the view of accelerating domestication of international and regional standards, achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls”.

The reality is that this mechanism never got traction nor got the mandate to truly coordinate among UN and external, autonomous regional mechanisms outside of the purview of the UN system.

Mentioned earlier, the Commission on the Status of the Women is the oldest of all these mechanisms that, while proved to be indispensable over the last decades to mainstream women rights within the universal human rights agenda, is now outdated.

Till now we have been only focusing on mechanisms to uphold, monitor and protect the rights of women.

We have not yet discussed the “program” side of the equation, the work to prevent violence and discrimination against women and promote their empowerment being done by UN agencies and programs, including UN Women the agency that provides the secretariat of the Commission on the Status of Women.

In this respect, there is also, always within the UN System, the Inter-Agency Network on Women and Gender Equality or IANWGE, bringing together all the main women focal points of all UN agencies and programs.

Under responsibility of UN Women, the Network appears weak and just a formality though we should assume that at country level, all the work related to women’s empowerment is coordinated under the United Nations Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework (formerly named United Nations Development Assistance Framework).

This is a process that itself could require a further upgrade to truly maximize cooperation and avoidance of overlaps between and among agencies and programs.

It is evident that in both domains, on the one hand, the human rights accountability mechanisms and on the other hand, the actions and programs on the ground to change the status quo, there is need of a much stronger synergy and coordination, something that might be objected by several members of the UN that are unlikely to support anything akin to strengthen mechanisms upholding human rights.

Even the Commission on the Status of Women itself, whose upcoming session will be held between the 6 and17 March, should be re-thought.

With a multiyear thematic plan, the Commission, is a toothless and unnoticed advocacy and knowledge creation institution that each year comes up with a topic up for analysis and discussion.

This year, for example, the focus will be on “Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls” while last year’s theme was centered around climate change, environment and disaster prevention.

There are no doubts that it is important to have a global convening forum that brings together the top experts on issues that are so relevant to achieve SDG 5. Yet it is not hard to imagine how a stronger, more coordinated women centered architecture in the UN could achieve and produce more while spending less.

Let’s remind ourselves that the Agenda 2030 and the SDGs brought some institutional innovations in the way the UN operates, primarily the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, that is the major SDGs focused platform promoted by the UN.

Besides its usual gathering in July, this year the Forum will also host another SDG Summit in September, the biggest format to discuss about and review the SDGs at the highest levels of political leadership worldwide.

Yet, while we are referring to a strong advocacy and review mechanism with a considerable amount of convening power, the High-Level Political Forum is simply what it is, a review mechanism of countries’ performances towards accomplishing the SDGs and important vehicle for debating them.

A reform of a stronger UN System that is better positioned to truly achieve SDG 5, should acknowledge an existing deep gulf between promotion and defense of human rights focusing on women (as well other human rights issues) and, on the other end, actions on ground at legislative, judiciary and economic and social levels to change the status quo.

For example, UN Human Rights has no formal role in hosting the High-Level Political Forum that is instead organized by ECOSOC and has a very limited presence at countries level.

A better chance at ensuring that the rights of women are defended while their living conditions improve, could be based on two complementary internal reforms within the UN System: an improvement on how Human Rights operates and a drastic rethinking of how the women focused service, advocacy and delivery-oriented agencies of the UN work.

On the former, the UN Human Rights could undertake, with the aim of giving them more voice and authority, a major reform of its “accountability” mechanisms that rely on the professionalism, integrity and expertise of world class activists, advocates and legal scholars.

The role of the Commission on the Status of the Women should also be reviewed. As per now, its outreach and voice are limited within the development sector and it has become almost irrelevant and unknown to the global public opinion.

On the latter, in terms of programs and initiatives supporting women and their rights around the world, only a true One United Nations approach at country level could do the job with ultimately a much better coordination and one unified “delivery” channel.

Both processes of change and their respective spheres of work, accountability and program, could then be promoted through a united “Global Women” platform that could end up with the same visibility that COP process gained for climate action.

A recently created multi partnership forum could, potentially, become such main vehicle to achieve SDG 5. I am talking of Generation Equality Forum, a joint initiative of Mexico and France that has been facilitated by UN Women.

It holds a great potential to facilitate new collaborations that so far has been convened twice in 2021, first in Mexico City and then in Paris, paving the way for an ambitious global program of action, the Global Acceleration Plan.

The interesting part of it is that the Forum is truly action oriented with its members committing to take action through six sub areas groups, branded as Generation Equality Action Coalitions that include the entire spectrum of areas that would ensure achieving SDG 5.

From gender violence to economic justice, to bodily autonomy and sexual reproductive rights, to climate justice to technology and innovation, to leadership, the coalitions, made up by hundreds of civil society organizations, global foundations and private corporations, can really facilitate partnerships with private sector and civil society, a capacity that the UN System has never mastered.

Can this new and bold attempt to catalyze efforts and investments for the rights of women and girls around the world become the epicenter of a new women focused development architecture?

Can a hybrid vehicle to rally global investments and actions for women help galvanize global attention on their rights and at same time do the job of meeting the targets of SDG 5?

Finally, would a new women focused “governance” of development assistance also force the UN System to change for good its working modalities?

Even if the accountability mechanisms under UN Human Rights would remain formally separated by this process of renewal for women ‘rights, nevertheless the banner of the Generation Equality Forum transformed into a “Global Women” platform could be used to highlight and “empower” their work.

The fact that this year there will be another gathering of the Generation Equality Forum could offer additional new momentum to the initiative though last year only a very low key event celebrated its 1st year anniversary.

Yet it was still an important gathering because it was where the Forum’s first accountability report was unveiled.

In few days from now the Forum will actively participate in the upcoming session of Commission on the Status of Women but with some insights, perhaps, the opposite process should occur.

The Commission and all other women focused mechanisms and programs, at minimum, could become part of a much larger and more institutionalized institution that should also be fully aligned to and possibly become the central pillar for SDG 5 of The High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.

We know from the latest Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals: the Gender Snapshot 2022 that there is still so much to be done in the field of gender empowerment that urgency and radical thinking should not be discouraged nor set aside.

Rather they should be truly embraced head-on. Meanwhile another great publication on women and young girls’ activism will be read by too few people.

Simone Galimberti is the Co-Founder of ENGAGE and co-initiator of the Good Leadership, Good for You & Good for the Society, both active in Nepal. He writes on volunteerism, social inclusion, youth development and regional integration as an engine to improve people’s lives

IPS UN Bureau


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