By Liz Ford
UN member states have pledged to close the gender pay gap and reduce and redistribute unpaid care and domestic work that falls disproportionately on women.
After two weeks of intense discussions in New York, the Commission on the Status of Women ended with commitments by states to advance women’s economic empowerment by implementing equal pay policies, gender audits and job evaluations. The gender pay gap stands at 23% globally, according to UN figures.
The commission also agreed to increase public services and provide affordable childcare that would allow women to undertake paid work and reduce unpaid labour.
In the agreement conclusions, the commission urged governments to measure the value of unpaid care and domestic work through time-use surveys. It also emphasised the need to ensure that women and men have access to paid parental leave.
It urged governments to take measures to end violence and harassment against women in the workplace by strengthening and enforcing laws and policies, and support those who have experienced violence to re-enter the labour force.
The agreement recognised that women’s ability to control their bodies and exercise their sexual and reproductive health and rights were essential for economic independence and empowerment.
Concerns that this year’s negotiations would be derailed by conservative groups seeking to push back women’s rights, emboldened by Donald Trump’s reinstatement of the “global gag rule” and his proposed funding cuts to the UN, proved well-founded.
Although women’s rights activists called the final agreement significant, to get there they had to overcome attempts by countries including Russia and Guyana, as well as by the Holy See, which has special observer status at the UN, to restrict women’s sexual and reproductive rights in the language of the text.
The US also aligned with Russia to reject the inclusion of the International Labour Organisation, the UN body responsible for labour rights, in the agreement.
Some African states had expressed the view that women’s unpaid work was “cultural” and enjoyable, and argued that it was not the responsibility of the state to reduce it.
“These were hard-fought gains as countries like the US, Russia and Guyana worked to weaken governments’ resolve to tackle violence and harassment and protect sexual and reproductive rights,” said Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition. “Governments must face the facts that women’s rights to exercise autonomy over their bodies and lives is critical to their economic empowerment.”
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women, said the commission had engaged “strongly, comprehensively and constructively” in considering the most effective ways in which to bring about change for women in the workplace.
“We have heard from all quarters the accepted imperative to put this knowledge into practice. It will take action throughout society; by all those who spoke to represent the commitment of young and older, of civil society and parliamentarians, of men and women alike, to embrace the great promise of finally making space for women to thrive,” she said.
“There has never been any excuse for the inequality that exists. Now we are seeing a healthy intolerance for inequality grow into firm and positive change.”
Some 162 member states and more than 3,900 representatives from 580 civil society organisations from 138 countries attended this year’s CSW, the UN’s largest annual gathering to discuss progress on women’s rights and gender equality.
However, a number of activists who had been invited to take part were unable to attend because they were denied visas to travel. Some organisations chose to boycott the event in protest at Trump’s travel ban on six countries.
At side events held during the commission, empty chairs were symbolically placed on panels to highlight the missing participants.
This article was published on The Guardian's website on March 27, 2017.