Despite global progress toward achieving gender parity, half of the world’s population are still facing gender inequalities that hinder their full potential—especially rural women and girls who form 25 percent of world’s population and 43 percent of the world’s agricultural force.
Aiming to address that issue, this year, the 62nd session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 62) is focusing on “challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment of rural women and girls.”
The session, held during March 12-23 in New York, aims to mobilize and strengthen women-led civil society actors and feminist movements to support efforts aiming to change existing social norms and prevent violence against rural women and girls. CSW 62 will also shed light on actions required by governments and the international community to provide an enabling environment for gender justice, especially for rural women and girls.
More than 1,000 representatives of the UN member states, UN bodies, youth and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) affiliated with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) will attend the conference.
In addition to the main theme, participants will review progress on a theme adopted by the CSW in its 2003 session: “Participation in and access of women to the media and information and communications technologies as well as their impact and use as an instrument for the advancement and empowerment of women.” This year’s session will also review progress made to implement last year’s session recommendations held under the theme “women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work.” This includes progress in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including the fifth goal aiming for gender equality.
During its 61 conference, the CSW adopted conclusions that included empowering women on the legal front, as well as through economic and social policies providing access to education and training. Issues adopted by the CSW 61 further included the growing informal work sector, strengthening the collective voice of women, managing technological and digital change for women’s economic empowerment, eliminating harassment in the workplace and supporting Palestinian women.
Why rural women and girls?
Rural women and girls play a critical role in ensuring both food and social security for their families and communities, and they represent the largest source of untapped potential. Yet they face multiple forms of discrimination and violence; this is particularly the case for agricultural workers, indigenous and tribal women, fisherwomen and informal workers.
They have limited access to and control of land and productive resources, they do most of the unpaid and unrecognized household care, they lack access to information and communication technologies, suffer from legislation that limits their ability to take loans and achieve economic independence, and are heavily impacted by poor infrastructure, unregulated migration and climate disasters resulting from climate change. This vulnerability is exacerbated by intersecting inequalities against young women and girls, older women, heads of households, women with disabilities, migrants, refugees and internally displaced women.
Photo courtesy of FAO
“If women in rural areas had the same access to land, technology, financial services, education and markets as men, they could increase agricultural production and reduce the number of hungry people – and among those, the women and girls who often eat least,” said Mlambo-Ngcuka.
Challenges facing rural women and girls include threats to their sexual and reproductive health and rights as a result of cultural and religious norms that lead to unintended pregnancies and complications in pregnancy and chilbirth. Gender-based violence (GBV) and other harmful practices, including Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and forced marriages of child girls, threaten their well-being. The changing climate further limits their access to land, water and energy and increases the time and effort spent by women to secure water and fuel for their families. This is in addition to an already-limited access to formal and informal education that leads girls to miss out on education and income-generating opportunities.
The status of rural women and girls becomes more vulnerable in contexts of displacement, armed conflict, militarization and extremism as they create greater opportunities for kidnappings and sexual exploitation. An example of such is the collective sexual assaults that targeted Rohingya Muslim women attempting to flee their rural villages. Internally displaced women and girls who live in crowded evacuation centers lack privacy and security, which lead to more attacks, abuse and even trafficking.
In his report to the CSW 62 on the challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls, the UN Secretary General highlighted that achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls in rural areas around the globe is linked to other sustainable development goals and targets.
The report introduced concrete actions that contribute to realizing the human rights of rural women and girls. These actions include management of the impact of international investment and trade rules that compromise rural women’s and girls’ smallholder agricultural production and food security and nutrition—especially since 76 percent of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas and are vulnerable to growing stress on water and land use.
Other recommended actions include eliminating violence against women at home and in the workplace, sharing the burden of unpaid care work, ensuring women’s access to financial services and new technology, increasing women’s access to justice, changing cultural practices in both the public and the private sector, and ratifying key international agreements for protecting the rights of women workers. The latter is especially critical for women in the informal sector and domestic workers.
The report recommends serious legal and policy reforms to strengthen rural women’s and girls’ land rights and their equitable access to productive resources and markets. The aim is also to encourage urban-rural interaction and connectivity as well as the need for essential infrastructure like sanitation and healthcare.
International preparations ahead of the CSW 62
As part of preparations for the CSW 62, several UN bodies met last summer to discuss the gaps and priority areas for action to accelerate gender-transformative impacts for rural dwellers, as well as the effectiveness of currently adopted approaches and policies.
Key actors in the field from member states also discussed the strategies and policies to be adopted and priorities to be discussed during the CSW session.
Those discussions included a multi-stakeholder forum held by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in January 2018 to discuss the session’s theme and prepare for the conference. The forum focused on the impact of discrimination and marginalization on rural and indigenous women as well as how it contributes to greater violence and exploitation. It also stated recommendations like the importance of including local women in the conversation and urging governments to promote inclusion and raise awareness against violence.
The African Women’s Development and Communication Network (Femnet) and the NGO-CSW Africa also held a two-day regional meeting on February 19 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, bringing 40 representatives of women rights’ organizations from the region to discuss perspectives and priorities that contribute to achieving gender equality and empowerment of rural women and girls. The meeting also developed a common advocacy position and recommendations to lobby governments at the UN CSW conference.
In Palestine, the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW) held a preparatory meeting ahead of the CSW 62. The meeting discussed the priority theme for Palestine to be discussed during the conference, which is the Israeli violations against Palestinian women and girls, including refugee women, women in refugee camps in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, women living in Jerusalem and female prisoners.
The Palestinian delegation to the CSW 62 agreed to focus on the immediate impacts of Israeli violence on women and girls, including psychological trauma, loss of economic livelihood, food insecurity, lack of access to quality healthcare, disruption in education and other violations of human rights. They will highlight the relation between occupation and hindered women’s empowerment efforts in Palestine, including women’s participation in the decision-making processes. This is part of a broader spectrum of gendered violence which exists in Palestinian society not only as a direct result of the occupation, but also with patriarchal systems exacerbated by the existence of the occupation.
Egypt’s Fatma Al Zahraa Hassan represented the Africa States group at the Bureau of the Commission of the Status of Women during its 61st session in 2017. In preparation for the 62nd session, Egypt participated in the meetings organized by the African Union in January and February to coordinate the African position towards the adopted theme for 2018. Sexual and reproductive health and rights as a means to empower rural women and girls is a crucial component on the Egyptian delegation’s agenda.
The CSW’s contribution to the advancement of women’s rights
Established as a functional commission of the ECOSOC soon after the UN was founded in 1946, the CSW works to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women. The commission especially focuses on setting standards and formulating international binary conventions on women. One of its first successes was changing references to “men” as a synonym for humanity in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and introducing new, more inclusive language.
The commission adopted a comprehensive agenda to further the advancement of women, especially in developing countries. It included women’s needs in community and rural development, agricultural work, family planning, as well as scientific and technological advancements.
The commission conducts global assessments and studies on the status of women to produce a country-by-country picture of their political and legal standing. The analysis and results of this work are employed as the basis for drafting human rights instruments.