The Decline of Civil Space for Women and Gender Advocacy

At the end of March, I attended the 63rd Commission on the Status of Women conference at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. While I participated in the 2018 Global Engagement Summit held at UN Headquarters, now I was a representative of UNA-USA. I felt a big honor and responsibility to raise my voice as a UNA-USA advocate but also as a student from a very diverse campus of the University of California-Berkeley.

I attended only the second week of the conference, from March 18 to 22, and attended parallel events hosted by different delegations and UN special committees in partnership with NGOs. It was still a profound learning experience. Moreover, it was very engaging, and most presenters were open to questions and critiques. While I hold different opinions about what I have heard and seen, I left the conference educated, connected, engaged, and inspired.

My background is in conflict resolution and human rights abuse research, so most of the sessions I attended related to these issues. While gender-mainstreaming (which refers to the incorporation of gender equality into state policies as a norm) was the central theme throughout the conference, it was particularly emphasized in the sessions on conflict and post-conflict. Twenty years ago, Resolution 1325 called for the inclusion of women in each stage of conflict resolution and post-conflict recovery. However, to this day, women continue to be ignored and marginalized in the process while being disproportionately affected by conflict. The session I attended discussed the crisis in Syria and lack of access for women to economic recovery. This happens due to the idea of youth bulge, young males’ unemployment, and inter-ethnic inequality as central reasons of violence and war. The panelists argued that by focusing on these reasons, recovery projects ignore the violence against women and gender-inequality that are present in each conflict. More sustainable projects should seek to engage women in each aspect of recovery and empower women to be actors of their own agency.

Nevertheless, it is striking that gender-inequality and gender-based violence persist throughout the world, and women are discriminated against. In the past year only, there has been a tremendous backlash in gender-equality in policies and enforcement, specifically in the Central and Latin Americas and the U.S.  Countries have resorted to the abolition of institutions focus on women’s issues and establish departments of “family” which idealizes a fixed vision of a heterosexual married family with two with kids. Conservative views more and more influence policies in Brazil where sexual education is being removed from school curriculums, and feminist advocates are apprehended and detained. Moreover, women are threatened and harassed for their activism in their daily lives.

While the UN strives to tackle these issues and much more, it is important to realize that its capacity is limited to the decisions of the member-states and its protocols. Therefore, the change lies in the joint actions of civilians, NGOs, and the private sector. The UN currently focuses more on private-public partnerships to achieve the Global Goals. It is our responsibility to promote gender equality and gender-mainstreaming with our representatives and among our local communities as well as speaking up about harassment.