A Primer on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women

A Primer on the United Nations Commission Status Women

Feminist ideas, policy, and research continuously change to reflect the problems of the time.  If the transition from 2016 into 2017 has taught us anything, it is that women’s rights cannot be taken for granted.  One of the most visible examples is recently inaugurated U.S. President Donald Trump’s comments and stances on women’s rights, but this trend is not limited to the United States: there has been an upsurge in violence against women around the world.  Gender inequality is a persistent problem.  Though established in 1946, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is no less relevant today that it was in 1946.

The 61st session of CSW, which is taking place at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, is being held this year from March 13th to the 24th.  This meeting is one of the largest annual gatherings of global leaders, NGOs, private sector actors, UN partners, and women’s rights activists from around the world, all of whom focus on the rights and empowerment of women and girls globally.   

Three themes dominate this year’s gathering: women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work; challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls; and the empowerment of indigenous women.

Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work

According to UN Women,“Women still predominantly occupy jobs that pay less and provide no benefits. They earn less than men, even as they shoulder the enormous—and economically essential—burden of unpaid care and domestic work.” The focus on women’s economic empowerment has regularly been a theme over the last few decades, and there is little wonder why.  Women’s economic empowerment programmes such as income generating activities and micro-credit schemes benefit entire communities and countries. In other words, the advantages of empowering women economically extend well beyond women.

As the nature of work changes rapidly, women often do not reap the same rewards from these changes as men do.  Women still remain economically disadvantaged in several ways.  In our increasingly globalized world, more and more women are leaving rural areas to work as factory or domestic workers, which some have dubbed the ‘feminization of migration.’  Such positions tend to be lower-paid and less secure than jobs held by men.  Education, too, remains elusive for many women.  While the number of  women and girls completing educational and training programs has risen overall, these gains are still well below their potential.  Far too many girls still do not have access to educational opportunities and/or have limited opportunities for work.  Additionally, many women work in the informal, unpaid economy where their labor is not rewarded and in many cases not recognized.  Cooking, cleaning, and caring for children and elderly parents are often tasks that fall on female members of the family.  In places where women do work outside the home, their work tends to mimic these traditional nurturing feminine qualities, and they take on low-paying positions such as nurses, teachers, and caregivers.  And even when women do hold formal jobs in the labor force, they are often disproportionately burdened with caregiving roles within the family when they return from work.  Each of these factors inhibit women from fully participating in and realizing the benefits of technological advancements.  

Challenges and Achievements in the Implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for Women and Girls

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are new global objectives that were developed in succession to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2016. The SDGs shape national and international development plans over the next 15 years. The SDGs range from quality education to eradicating hunger to responding to climate change.

As these goals help to shape national and international policy and practice, it is important to understand how the MDGs have affected women around the world.  Both the MDGs and SDGs explicitly named achieving gender equality as an aim.  While it is certainly obvious that gender equality has not been attained, that is not to say the MDGs were unsuccessful.  In fact, there are now more girls receiving schooling, fewer instances of domestic violence, and a decrease in child marriage..  These are not insignificant gains for those who have been protected from child marriage or violence thanks to the MDGs.  

There has been a lot of positivity surrounding the SDGs and all UN agencies seek to keep this momentum and moral going to aid in their work.  The CSW is a prime forum to address these goals, and the participants are likely to discuss how to use this momentum to encourage countries to implement the SDGs - in particular SDG 5 on gender equality - in addition to discussing the ways in which the SDGs can improve upon areas in which the MDGs fell short.

The Empowerment of Indigenous Women

Indigenous women have had to bear the full brunt of discrimination in any formerly-colonized country.  Indigenous women are often forgotten or ignored in political discourse and policy.  In Canada, for example, aboriginal women are three to four times more likely to go missing or be murdered than non-native women.  In the United States, one in three Native American women is sexually assaulted in her lifetime, but the report rate remains low.  Further, more than 80 percent of sex crimes on reservations are committed by non-Indian men, who are immune from prosecution by tribal courts.  Throughout the world, indigenous women are largely ignored in mainstream media and society.  

Thankfully, recent progress has been made to promote indigenous women’s rights.  In 2015, Mexico amended its constitution to improve the political engagement of Oaxaca women.  In the same year, after it was estimated the 4,000 indigenous women in Canada were either missing or murdered over the last three decades, Canada’s government launched a long-awaited national inquiry into the murder or disappearance of the indigenous women. Unlikely feminist heartthrob and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised a renewal of the country’s relationship with its aboriginal population and an end to impunity for those who commit violence against indigenous women.  Undoubtedly, this came as a result from widespread campaigning from indigenous communities and their allies.  Just this week, four indigenous women from Costa Rica were awarded a scholarship from the Government of India to enroll in a Solar Engineering program in Rajasthan for six months. They will learn how to build, set up and maintain solar panels to bring electricity to their indigenous community.  

Where these are certainly small victories, it is important to continue to fight for equality. The progress made by the United Nations in advancing gender equality should not be underrated.  Since the establishment of the Commission on the Status of Women in 1946, women around the world have seen advancements.  But there remain significant hurdles before full gender equality can be attained, namely in women’s economic empowerment, the SDGs, and indigenous women’s rights.  Thankfully, the spirit which inspired the CSW remains strong today.  We look forward to a productive meeting this week at the United Nations.


Lydia Birtwistle-Sawyer is a recent graduate of SOAS, University of London and attends lectures as a hobby.


UN, CSWMarissa ConwayUN, CSW