March 22, 2014

NEW YORK—After two weeks of intense negotiations, the 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women ended early this morning with a strong call to prioritize gender equality and the human rights of women and girls in order to achieve sustainable development.

The Commission was convened at the UN headquarters in New York to address the challenges and achievements of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in improving the lives of women and girls in developing countries. The Commission noted that the goals furthest from being achieved are those focused on women and girls—particularly on achieving gender equality and improving maternal health. With the MDGs set to expire in 2015, the Commission’s agreed conclusions will help shape priorities for the next global development framework.

The Commission specifically called for a stand-alone goal on gender equality, a move that was applauded by women’s rights activists.

“The discussions to shape the next global development agenda offer a pivotal opportunity to prioritize the needs and rights of women and girls, especially the most vulnerable,” said Françoise Girard, President of the International Women’s Health Coalition. “By committing and investing in efforts to promote gender equality, governments can unleash the power of half the world’s population to build a more peaceful, just, and sustainable planet.”

“Agreement to a standalone goal on gender equality was not a foregone conclusion here, given the small but very vocal conservative opposition to women’s rights. It’s a major step forward to have the Commission agree to it,” added Girard.

In addition to a gender equality goal, the Commission stated that the post-2015 development agenda must include gender-specific targets across all other development goals, strategies, and objectives—especially those related to education, health, economic justice, and the environment. It also called on governments to address the discriminatory social norms and practices that foster gender inequality, including early and forced marriage and other forms of violence against women and girls, and to strengthen accountability mechanisms for women’s human rights.

The Commission expressed concern that several critical issues related to gender equality were not adequately addressed by the MDGs, including violence against women and girls; harmful practices such as early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation; and women’s and adolescents’ sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights; women’s and girls’ disproportionate share of unpaid work, particularly unpaid care work; the gender wage gap; women’s equal access to and control of resources including land; women’s inheritance rights; and women’s full participation in decision-making at all levels.

“The commitments made by governments at the United Nations are an important victory for women and girls. We have achieved what we came to do, against great odds and the determined attempts by the Holy See and a few conservative countries to once again turn back the clock on women’s rights,” said Shannon Kowalski, Director of Advocacy and Policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition. “Governments clearly affirmed the importance of sexual and reproductive health services, including safe abortion and emergency contraception, and renewed their commitment to promoting reproductive rights and evidence-based sexuality education. Sustainable development depends on healthy, strong, and empowered women and girls.”

Women’s health and rights organizations applauded governments who stood up for the rights of all individuals to live free of violence, discrimination, and barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health services, particularly for girls. However, advocates expressed disappointment that a small minority of conservative governments spurred on by the Holy See—which holds special observer status at the UN—held up negotiations by objecting to concepts as fundamental as gender and the human rights of women throughout the two weeks of negotiations.

The Commission—made up of 45 UN Member States—reaffirmed global commitments to investment in “quality comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care,” including by providing access to emergency contraception, sexuality information and education, safe abortion where allowed by law, and prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections and HIV. It also called for the recognition of the human rights of women to “decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality… free from coercion, discrimination, and violence.”

In particular, advocates noted that, despite a 20-year legacy of UN prohibition of discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and increasingly on gender identity, government delegates gave in to pressure to exclude recognition of these violations in the final agreed conclusions.

Click here to see the agreed conclusions.

Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown