Education International
Education International

Education unionists celebrate hard-won gains on women’s empowerment

published 31 March 2017 updated 11 April 2017

Global commitments to women’s economic empowerment were agreed by the 163 participating member states at the 61st Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women which drew to a close on 24 March.

The outcome document of the 61st Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women ( UN CSW61) held in New York, USA, from 13 to 24 March, known as the Agreed Conclusions, explicitly acknowledges that “progress in achieving women's economic empowerment in the changing world of work has been insufficient, impeding the realisation of women’s full potential and the full enjoyment of their human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

This is very much in line with the Expert Group Report, published ahead of UN CSW61, in which it was stated that, in spite of some positive gains over the last few decades, “trends and indicators of women’s employment and their labour conditions in the changing world of work … remain stubbornly negative”.

Strengthening education

The Commission reaffirmed the right to education and access to “quality and inclusive education” as key contributing factors to achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. The Agreed Conclusions call on governments to provide “universal access to quality education, by ensuring inclusive, equal and non-discriminatory quality education”.

Some of the strongest language in the outcome document touched on education, with the Commission explicitly linking fiscal spending and a gender-responsive infrastructure for social protection and care. Member states are urged to “optimise fiscal expenditures for gender-responsive social protection and care infrastructure, such as equitable, quality, accessible and affordable early childhood education”.

School-related gender-based violence

The Commission also highlights the need to ensure women and girls are safe on their journey to and from educational facilities, as well as within them. School-related gender-based violence ( SRGBV) is recognised as one of the most persistent barriers to girls’ participation in education (especially at the secondary level) in different parts of the world. Education International (EI) is an active member of the Global Working Group to End SRGBV, which is jointly convened by UNESCO and the UN Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI). EI’s member organisations in East and Southern Africa are also implementing a joint EI/UNGEI programme on SRGBV, through which the unions will be strengthened and better positioned to help end SRGBV in their respective contexts.

The Agreed Conclusions further highlight pregnant adolescents and young mothers as some of the “most left behind” constituencies, as they are too often denied the right to education. Member states are urged to design, implement or revise educational policies so pregnant adolescents and young mothers can remain in or return to school and complete their education.

Recognising structural barriers

In the introductory paragraphs of the outcome document, reference is made to specific groups of women and girls who face multiple and intersecting discrimination and barriers to their economic empowerment, including women and girls of African descent, indigenous women and girls, disabled women and girls, and migrant women and girls, especially migrant women workers. Violence against women and girls is another key structural issue that is explicitly referred to in the Agreed Conclusions, especially as it impacts the world of work, and the document also recognised unpaid care work as “a structural impediment to girls’ and women’s progress in and completion of education”.

Collective action

The Agreed Conclusions are significant but did not emerge without difficulty. During the second week of negotiations, women’s rights and other social justice organisations struggled to make their voices heard when attempts were made to limit delegates’ access to negotiation spaces they have previously always been able to access. Informal discussions between government and civil society delegates were seriously hampered, and civil society delegates found themselves unable to adequately support the negotiation process.

The close to 4,000 activists who had made the journey to New York to ensure member states adopt the kinds of Agreed Conclusions that will make women’s economic empowerment a reality sooner rather than later refused to back down. Within a 20-hour window, close to 730 organisations endorsed a protest letter, which resulted in full access being restored to civil society delegates.

ILO Standards

The Global Unions’ delegates also had to mobilise collective action during the second week of negotiations, when several countries attempted to exclude any mention of International Labour Organisation (ILO) standards from the outcome document. In response, the Global Unions issued a joint statement condemning attempts by some member states to exclude any reference to the ILO in the Agreed Conclusions. The final outcome document contains a clear recognition of relevant ILO standards and core conventions as being “critical for women’s economic empowerment”.

Role of trade unions

Hard lobbying was also needed to ensure that the document included explicit mention of trade unions. Unions are recognised as institutions that can play an important role in taking some of the measures called for by member states to advance women’s economic empowerment and as having a key role in social dialogue. Their role in addressing persistent economic inequalities, including the gender pay gap is also acknowledged, along with the need to support tri-partite collaboration, as a means of preventing and removing barriers to gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. The document also recognises the need to encourage and support women’s participation in and leadership of trade unions, workers’ and employers’ organisations.

Tackling unfinished business

For the first time, the Commission on the Status of Women noted the importance of the 2008 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, specifically for women and girls. Member states are called on to “promote the economic empowerment of indigenous women including by ensuring access to quality and inclusive education and meaningful participation in the economy by addressing multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination they face and barriers, including violence, and promote their participation in relevant decision-making processes at all levels and in all areas, and respecting and protecting their traditional and ancestral knowledge”. This is a significant inclusion, which will be considered in more depth when the Commission meets in 2018 with a focus on the empowerment of indigenous women and girls.