Civicus' Statement at the UN Commission on the Status of Women

Protect Women’s Civic Freedoms to Enhance their Role in Public Life.

Twenty years since the ratification of the Beijing Platform for Action, and a year since women across the world participated in the Women's Global Strike - gender justice is still not a reality for most women.

Despite mass mobilisations globally with women at the forefront, and despite numerous campaigns and policy interventions orchestrated by women civil society leaders, activists and lawyers, women across the world struggle to achieve full equality.

The theme of this year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW65), running from 15 to 26 March 2021, is Women in Public Life: Equal Participation in Decision-Making. Meaningfully realising Sustainable Development Goal 5 (on Gender Equality) requires ensuring that civic freedoms for women in civil society are protected, recognised, celebrated and supported by multilateral institutions and governments across the world. This can only be done by recognising how SDG 16 (on Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions) is an important conduit to guaranteeing the civic freedoms of women activists around the world who have improved human rights for all despite significant hurdles. To this end, the undersigned are calling for the UN system and governments across the world to ensure that the work of women in civil society is protected, resourced and supported in all spheres.

Rather than sit back, women and girls across the world are mobilising in solidarity to challenge the entrenchment of neoliberalism, inequality, sexism, militarism, racism and patriarchy at local, national and international levels. Around the world, women of all ages are taking to the streets and occupying virtual spaces to stand up for the human rights of all and demand systemic change. Movements such as “Ni Una Menos” in Latin America, the Czarny Protests in Poland, or the protests led by the feminist movement in Lebanon, Algeria and Iraq have challenged patriarchal systems, showing that women are a force to be reckoned with. Organisations, like the League of Professional Women in Ukraine, have led programmes enhancing women’s capacity to step into leadership roles, engage effectively in the labour force and identify the learning needs of women. While those like the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET) have actively equipped and supported women activists to engage with macroeconomic policy and address inequalities.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, now more than ever it is critical to reimagine ways of supporting and protecting women activists as they conduct their work to enhance public life. The mass mobilisations of protesters, featuring women at the forefront, have led to reform of political systems, review on restrictive conditions of loans with international finance institutions, and the protection of sexual and reproductive health rights. Despite these incredible gains, women’s rights organisations continue to be chronically under resourced. Women also face a triple jeopardy: from state-endorsed restrictions and violence arising from their civil society work, to misogynist backlash for parting with patriarchal norms, and for the lack of resources and community-care to deal with psychosocial pressures and harm for doing this work. Women journalists have faced deteriorating conditions while conducting their work - this has included heightened restrictions while covering COVID-19, amidst already amplified physical attacks and online harassment.[1]

Recognising the interface between gender equality and civic freedoms, UN Special Rapporteur Clement Voule wrote that, “the voices of women and their contributions to activism and civil society continue to be undervalued, under-resourced and undermined. While significant progress has been made to ensure women’s participation in public life, State and non-State actors alike continue to violate women’s rights to the freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association – both online and offline.”

It is impossible that the sustainable development goals will be effectively met without addressing the multiple ways in which women’s contribution to change is systematically targeted by state and non-state actors alike. Thus, during this year’s Commission on the Status of Women, the undersigned organisations urge governments and multilateral bodies to allocate meaningful resources and implementation to match the policy frameworks that exist to realise gender equality and meaningful support for women in public life. Specifically, we call for:

  1. Governments to create enabling environments in law, policy and practice for women's participation in public life, with particular focus on removing any barriers to freedom of assembly, association, and expression for women and girls;
  2. Governments to establish and fully resource independent national institutions to safeguard promote and protect women's civic participation;
  3. Ensure that press freedom is prioritised and protected, rolling back any legislation that unduly criminalises the work of journalists, and ensuring that women who are journalists are able to access justice, protection and safe working conditions while conducting their work.
  4. Governments to ensure full investigations into attacks against women human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists, and to train and direct law enforcement agencies to uphold and respect the rights of women as they participate in public life;
  5. Governments to develop and implement gender-sensitive plans to roll-back COVID-19 regulations that unduly place restrictions on civic space for women in civil society;
  6. Governments to make amendments to existing legislation on assembly, in line with the UN General Comment on Article 21 of the ICCPR, recognising and protecting the right to assembly online and in-person, with special attention given to the gendered dimensions of the right to assembly;
  7. Governments to implement the recommendations of ILO Convention on Violence and Harassment, 2019 (No. 190) - recognising the work of women activists, journalists, protesters and civil society leaders as work that is to be rightfully carried out free from violence and harassment.
  8. Governments to commit to structural, long-term investments, such as developing infrastructure to upscale civil society efforts and empowering women in civil society to develop sustainable alternatives, to enable the resilience, relevance, and sustainability of civil society, especially prioritising women in civil society;
  9. Governments and power holders to address the gender injustices and underlying biases that result in the under-resourcing of women’s rights organisations;
  10. Government representatives to avoid vilifying and harassing women at all levels and develop mechanisms to hold those who threaten, attack, and assault women as well as those who subject women to smear campaigns accountable for their actions, making public examples of the perpetrators so as to serve as a deterrent to others; and
  11. United Nations to actively encourage the participation of women in its fora, condemning reprisals targeting women, and ensuring the removal of barriers to this participation in line with the calls by UN Secretary General António Guterres and the UN Guidance Note on the Protection and Promotion of Civic Space.

The undersigned,

  1. ActionAid International
  2. African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies
  3. Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)
  4. Bahrain Centre for Human Rights
  5. Bulgarian Center for Not-for-Profit Law
  6. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
  8. IUCN National Committee of the Netherlands (IUCN NL)
  9. Karapatan Alliance Philippines
  10. Bahrain Centre for Human Rights
  11. The Coalition For Women In Journalism (CFWIJ)
  12. New Europeans
  13. NGO "League of Professional Women" (LPW)
  14. Rainforest Alliance
  15. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights
  16. Tribal Rights Watch Pakistan
  17. Volunteer Activists Institute
  18. WHRDMENA Coalition
  19. Women in Development
  20. Women's March Global


Sign the statement


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