What is the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)?

What is the CSW

The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is the main global intergovernmental body dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment. The CSW convenes in New York for two weeks each year and is the largest annual gathering of governments, civil society, and the UN system to develop the global agenda concerning progress for women and girls.1 Almost 4,000 NGO representatives participate in CSW each year, never mind the contributions of UN Member States and numerous UN entities.2

Creation of CSW

The UN Commission on the Status of Women finds its roots in the language of the UN Charter. The four female signatories were able to include women’s rights in the document where it affirms “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity of the human person, in equal rights of men and women and of Nations large and small.” During the inaugural meetings of the UN General Assembly in February 1946, Eleanor Roosevelt read an open letter addressed to “the women of the world” where she called on governments to encourage women to take an active role in national and international affairs. A few days later a sub-commission on the Status of Women was established under the Commission on Human Rights. However, many women representatives believed that a completely separate body dedicated to women’s issue was necessary which led to the first chairpersons request in May 1946 to ECOSOC for a change to full commission status. On June 21, 1946 the Sub commission formally became the Commission on the Status of Women.3

Its mandate was to “prepare recommendations and reports to the Economic and Social Council on promoting women’s rights in political, economic, civil, social and educational fields” and to make recommendations “on urgent problems requiring immediate attention in the field of women’s rights.”4

CSW outcomes

The main outcome of the work of the Commission is the agreed conclusions on priority themes set each year. The agreed conclusions analyze the priority theme and propose recommendations for governments, institutions, civil society, and other relevant stakeholders to implement at the international, national, regional, and local level. The Commission also adopts resolutions on various issues.5

Negotiation of agreed conclusions

Negotiations of the agreed conclusions text begin before the Commission is officially in session. The first draft is called the “Zero Draft,” which is distributed to all Member States and observers for review.6 Member States then make their separate contributions to the text through a series of additions and suggested deletions, resulting in a very collaborative draft full of insertions, brackets, and new language. When the Commission is in session, the negotiations then move to “readings” of the text in a series of meetings and informal consultations with the aim of reaching consensus on each phrase and paragraph.

These negotiations involve many compromises and trade-offs between Member States. Unfortunately, these negotiations often result in the removal of topics considered to be more controversial, such as sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). In an effort to achieve wide consensus and move forward with other progressive or inclusive items specific to the CSW theme each year, SOGI language is often bargained out of the agreed conclusions. However, human-rights based or inclusive elements of the text can be considered to include LBTI rights even without specific references.

The Role of Civil Society Organizations

Civil society organizations (CSOs) have a very important role at every stage of CSW. First and foremost, they can work with national governments to influence positions on certain topics and suggest language for the agreed conclusions. These interactions at the national level help to hold governments accountable for their international obligations, which are often a topic at CSW.

CSOs can also work with like-minded organizations and partners to create coalitions centered on specific topics. These coalitions play an important role by contributing recommendations for the agreed conclusions or by advocating with Member States for certain priorities, with potentially significant impact as a group resulting from shared networks, expertise, resources, and influence.

CSW also includes many opportunities for CSOs to participate in events during the session.7 Limited numbers of CSOs are included in the public sessions, and some are asked to make statements to the Commission. However, the largest involvement comes from participation in parallel events, either held by Member States or organized by civil society outside of the UN premises. These events offer vital opportunities for CSOs to contribute to the overall dialogue, even if their areas of expertise and focus are not included in the current CSW theme or outcome.

1 Commission on the Status of Women: http://www.unwomen.org/en/csw
2 A Guide for NGOs and Women’s Human Rights Activists at the UN and CSW 2016, NGO Committee on the Status of Women: https://www.ngocsw.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/NGO-Main-Guide-2016_122115.pdf
3 Short History of the Commission on the Status of Women, United Nations: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/CSW60YRS/CSWbriefhistory.pdf
4 Id.
5 Outcomes, UN Women: http://www.unwomen.org/en/csw/outcomes.
6 Supra, note 1.
7 NGO Participation: http://www.unwomen.org/en/csw/ngo-participation negotiations. These side events are an important - and exciting - component of CSW each year.