The 58 session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women was held in the UN headquarters in New York on 10 – 21 March 2014. Over 6000 representatives from 193 UN member states and NGOs from all over the world participated in the session. The World Federation of Trade Unions was represented in the session by Hemalata, secretary, CITU, BV Vijayalakshmi, secretary, AITUC, Frank Goldsmith, permanent representative of WFTU at the UN in New York, and Barbara Storace from the USA.
The Commission discussed ‘Challenges and achievements in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for Women and Girls’ as the priority theme, ‘Access and participation of women and girls to education, training, science and technology, including for the promotion of women’s equal access to full employment and decent work’ as the review theme and ‘Women’s access to productive resources’ as the emerging issue.
Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the UN addressed the session. His report said that while there was a reduction in global poverty, particularly driven by China, women’s vulnerability to poverty is not adequately depicted by the figures. Several factors including restriction of their right to paid work, gender based discrimination at the work place, lower income or lack of any income, their domestic responsibilities, etc contribute significantly to the increased risk of women to poverty. Between 2000 and 2012, women’s employment rates declined from 48.6% to 47.9% compared to 73.8% and 72.7% for men. The global crisis had a serious impact on women. While there was a modest rise in women’s employment before the crisis, women’s employment rate declined by 1.1% between 2007 and 2012 compared to 0.9% decline for men. The situation was worse in South and East Asia where the decline was 2.9% and 3.0% further increasing gender gaps in the region.
The report also noted the occupational segregation of women, mostly in jobs that are vulnerable and low paid without access to social protection and the lower wages paid to women than men for work of equal value. Women continue to be underrepresented in decision making.
The progress in the case of reducing maternal mortality has been tardy. Most of the maternal deaths are preventable and are linked to the low status of women and inadequate health care services, lack of skilled attendance at delivery and lack of emergency obstetric services, particularly for poor women. In South Asia, rich urban women had six times more access to skilled attendance at delivery than the poorest rural women.
The secretary general’s report also pointed out to certain weaknesses in the MDGs. The focus was on the developing countries thereby neglecting the universal context and the reality that no country has achieved substantive equality for women and girls. The targets set out for gender equality in the MDGs were narrow and were not in accordance to those set out in global agreements like the Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Platform of Action etc. They lacked a comprehensive approach to gender equality. Important dimensions of gender inequality like unpaid care work, violence against women and girls, women’s access to assets, gender wage gap and equal participation in decision making etc were omitted in the MDGs. Further, the focus was on numerical equality which does not distinguish between equality achieved by improving the conditions of women and girls and that by ‘equalizing down’ through deterioration in the conditions of men and boys. The realisation of the goals is interlinked. For example, the report pointed out, the denial of the right to decent work can impact the other rights like the right to health.
Financial resources for achieving gender equality continue to be highly inadequate. The rise in financial allocation that was seen in the earlier period has been reversed since the global crisis with the spending either stagnating of falling in many countries. The report pointed out to the existing scope of mobilising resources through progressive income taxes, corporate and wealth tax, improving tax compliance etc.
The report concluded that the overall progress in gender equality and women’s rights across all the goals was slow and uneven and the post 2015 tasks need to be based on the past experiences in achieving the MDGs. Men and boys, not only women and girls, should also be involved in attaining gender equality. Along with including a gender component on all the goals, it was necessary to include a specific goal on gender equality.
The discussions were held in several parallel sessions in which only the member countries of the UN were involved. India was conspicuous by its absence. Though hundreds of NGOs including religious groups, human rights, health, anti-war groups etc as well as trade unions and those working on women workers issues were present they were not involved in the discussions. Several NGOs organised their own side events to focus on their issues. Hundreds of side events were held at different places in and around the UN headquarters.
The Commission endorsed the observations in the report of the secretary general and noted that structural inequalities including gender wage gaps impede progress. It highlighted the urgent need to overcome gender inequalities by ensuring women’s access to opportunities and resources, control and ownership of land and other productive assets etc and asserted that equality for women means progress for all.
In addition to the official sessions, WFTU representatives participated in various side events organised on the occasion. Among others, these included a seminar on ‘Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women in the Asia Pacific Region’, held on 13th March. Representatives from several Asian countries including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives, and Korea etc participated in this seminar.
On 14th March a delegation of participants from South Asia met Lakshmi Puri, Deputy Executive Director of UN Women and Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations. Lopa Bannerjee, head of civil society section of UN Women was also present. WFTU representatives Hemalata and BV Vijayalakshmi were part of the delegation. The delegation tried to impress upon the UN Women that the major concerns of women should be reflected in the final document on agreed conclusions of the 58th session. Hemalata said that the issues of working women in the unorganised sector should find due place in the final document. The delegation pointed out that though most of the governments claimed to have achieved progress in relation to several MDGs, the ground level situation was quite different. They said that the final report should reflect the ground reality.
WFTU representatives also participated in the side event on ‘The Voices of African Women and Girls in the Post 2015 Development Agenda’ organised jointly by UN Women, ACORD and YWCA on 17th March. Lopa Bannerjee, chief of Civil Society section of UN Women acted as the moderator. A report ‘African Women and Girls at the Grassroots – Their Say on their World Post 2015’ was released on this occasion. The report was based on 45 workshops held in 13 countries in Africa focussed on the issues of women and girls, on the challenges they faced and their ideas on what changes they wanted. It identified five major concerns expressed by women and girls in Africa – violence against women and girls, access to and control over resources including land, credit, energy and information technology, women’s citizenship and leadership, access to basic services, particularly reproductive and health services, and recognition, redistribution and remuneration of women’s unpaid care work.
Phumzile Mlambo –Ngcuka, executive director, UN Women made the opening remarks. Mary Clara Makungwa, minister of women affairs, Malawi, Salina Sanou, head of policy and advocacy, ACORD (Agency for Cooperation and Research in Development), Emma Mungari were among the panellists.
Women’s International Democratic Federation held a seminar on ‘Women and Work – Advances and Setbacks’ on 19th March. Yanira Herrera Kuper, secretary, International Relations of Cuban Women’s Federation and representative of the WIDF regional office for America and Caribbean presided. WFTU representative Hemalata was a panellist in the seminar and spoke of WFTU’s perspective on the issue and her experiences in India. The other panellists included Ana Rocha, Women Secretary of Rio de Janeiro from Brazil, Berta Joubert, coordinator of the IA Centre for Women, USA, Maritzel Gonzalez, Cuban Women’s Federation and Maria de Fatima, general secretary of Women Mozambiquan organisation and the coordinator of WIDF regional office for Africa. All the speakers highlighted the persisting inequalities that working women face at their workplace and the attacks on their trade union rights under neoliberal globalisation, particularly in the aftermath of the global crisis and the need for the trade unions, women’s organisations and other such forces to unitedly fight against the neoliberal policies to achieve the goal of women’s equality. Vijayalakshmi, also representing WFTU made an intervention.