UN Commission on the Status of Women—Where Are We in 2019?

Last Friday, March 22, marked the end of the 63rd annual session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), a two-week period of meetings, discussions, panels, and presentations at the United Nations in New York. The CSW’s annual session brings stakeholders together to check in on the state of women’s rights worldwide, to evaluate progress towards gender equity, and to explore solutions to the most pressing challenges faced by women and girls today.

Set up in 1946, the CSW is an intergovernmental body that seeks to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women. But why is the CSW still needed more than 70 years after its inception? In short, because gender parity is far from achieved.

Women and girls worldwide still lag far behind men and boys in economic prosperity, access to leadership positions, representation in government, access to healthcare, freedom from harassment, and protection from violence. While there is a significant amount of data to demonstrate these disparities, some of the most alarming statistics are that one in three women around the world have experienced either physical or sexual violence, and that one in five women and girls ages 15 to 49 have reported being victims of physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner. Despite these distressing numbers, 49 countries have no legislation protecting women from domestic violence.

The yearly CSW session in New York clearly highlights that protection and empowerment of women and girls are global goals that need to be prioritized, and we at Refugees International also know that women and girls are disproportionately affected by conflict and displacement. Today, there are more than 30 million women and girls who have been forced to flee their homes. Displacement adds another layer of protection risks to the struggles that women and girls already face.

Sexual violence increases in displacement, legal rights are often suspended, social and community structures are disrupted, and there are often significant obstacles to accessing sustainable livelihoods. These are some of the reasons why Refugees International has a specific program for women and girls. While any forcibly displaced person faces challenges, the needs and protection risks of women and girls must be treated with special sensitivity. This is particularly true in light of the already disadvantaged position of women and girls generally—a position that the CSW continues to underscore.

I traveled to New York to take part in one of these CSW meetings on how best to economically empower displaced women and other women affected by conflict. I was inspired by the government officials, practitioners, researchers, and activists all thinking creatively about programs to address the needs of women and girls. There was a shared understanding that women are resilient, but that they also need tools to enhance their abilities to survive and thrive.

However, the first order of business is to prioritize their safety and survival. Most displaced women faced violence in the regions where they are originally from. Once forced to flee, they are exposed to new threats and the risk of violence all too often increases. Gender-based violence and the unique needs of women and girls on the move are rarely at the forefront of the planning and response to address displacement crises.

One of the key principles that came out of this year’s CSW is that we need more evidence. The only way that we can change policies is if we have the data to back up our assertions. The field missions and analyses of Refugees International do just that. Advocates visit with refugees and internally displaced people, they talk to host communities, they listen to aid workers, and they question government officials for just that purpose—to recognize gaps, encourage best practices, and challenge decision-makers based on first-hand data and evidence.

The data and evidence Refugees International has collected over the years and the events of the CSW this year lead me to three key takeaways:

  1. The safety and security of women and girls must be at the top of our priorities in planning and response.
  2. We need more data and evidence in making the case for women’s rights and equality, especially in situations of displacement.
  3. States need to make available more safe and legal routes for people displaced from their homes. 

The CSW’s strength is in bringing world leaders together to renew their commitment to the empowerment and equality of women and girls. Today, this mission could not be more important. According to María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, president of the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly, “various forms of violence, discrimination and intolerance are apparently reappearing within societies, jeopardizing the rights that women have conquered. We cannot allow ourselves to go back. We must be vigilant.” Refugees International is vigilant in its work highlighting the needs of displaced people around the world. Now that this CSW session has come to a close, I am strengthened by the words of the participants—words that encourage me to advocate for equality, empowerment, and above all, safety for women and girls who have fled their homes.