By Carole Shaw
27 February 2012

Well, here we are back in a particularly mild weathered New York City - anticipating the first event of many at the Commission on the Status of Women 56th Sessions. Once again women from around the globe gathered to celebrate the gains, advocate for positive change and highlight the gaps in global policy for women. The NGO CSW Forum is an event with many women juggling time constraints, getting passes, buying local sim cards, trying to find their way around on the subway/bus system, just arriving late the night before so sleep deprived, or coming straight from the airport.

The event was opened with the National Dance Institute dancing a colourful movement to the tunes of Stevie Wonder. Young people sharing their talent with the large number of NGO and government representatives in the hall. There were many women, but not, it seemed to those who attend each year, overcrowded as it has been in previous years. It is always good to see a familiar face n the crowd, and sad that many Asia Pacific Women’s Watch steering committee (APWW SC) representatives were not able to attend. Your wisdom and presence is missed. Positively though, there appear to be a larger number of younger women from the Asia Pacific region in the audience. This is mainly due to the support and opportunities offered by NGO organisations and academic academies to bring younger women through.

DISAPPOINTING though was the lack of acknowledgement of the Asia Pacific in the Welcome speech by Soon-Young Yoon who acknowledged each region separately asking for a show of hands as to who was from that region, all acknowledged except the Asia Pacific. Not gone unnoticed by many in the audience - a region containing 66% of the world's women missed out of the opening speech of the event, and not picked up on later in the event.

Michelle Bachelet welcomed to the stage by sounding applause, presented a speedy but rousing speech about the year of UN Women. She spoke of activities around women's political participation, and concrete proposals for political participation and empowerment of women. She spoke of the ILO Convention and the new wording around Decent work and domestic workers. She acknowledged that "Women are more than victims of conflict but are leaders of peace and democracy" and announced the allowance for 15% of the Peace and Recovery Budget to be allocated for women's participation. A low figure, acknowledged by Michelle Bachelet but a start. She reemphasised the push for 2012 to be for women's economic empowerment and political decision making.

More importantly, she discussed the role of civil society and noted that UN Women needed a strong, vibrant, meaningful engagement with civil society. Civil Society Regional advisory groups will be set up to advise on UN Women's progress and Michelle Bachelet also urged the setting up of regional and local civil society advisory groups to form both high level dialogue on women's issues and UN Women advancement, and to serve in a policy and advocacy role. The criteria for such advisory groups was not shared, nor was the time line by which these 'advisory groups' would be in place. However, once set up there will be web based platforms for engaging with each other.

On the priority theme of this year’s CSW 56 - rural women -- Michele Bachelet reiterated the opportunities and challenges to let voices be heard. Attendance of CSW 56th brings almost 4,000 representatives into this discussion, and she urged vigorous debate on both this year's theme and Rio+20 and it's sustainable development goals. "Women need to be at the centre of these discussions" -- rural women need to be at the heart of poverty reduction and rural development strategies. In this environment of shrinking civil society engagement space at the UN - let us see how this will play out.

A keynote address by Mirna Cunningham Kain, Chair UN Indigenous People's Forum and recipient of the 2012 NGO CSW Woman of Distinction Award, gave a call to remember Indigenous women and to give voice to their continuous struggles. She outlined the multiple forms of challenges for indigenous women's social and economic empowerment and highlighted the unique Indigenous knowledge and skills as custodians of the land and resources. It was noted that Indigenous women provide 60% of food production and yet receive less than 10% of loans and 5% of technical assistance. Respect, empower and engage at the community level was the message. Reflect the reality of Indigenous women's lives through cultural based indicators and data. A call for development with culture and concrete strategies. These are areas to be carried forward into the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples due in 2014.

The Regional Perspectives Panel was an interesting event, with presentations by UNDP, Al-Hakim Foundation, Association for Women in Development (AWID), Foundation For Studies and Research on Women (FEIM), Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP) and UN Women. Presentations ranged from the perspective of armed conflict in the Asia Pacific Region to the situation of Iraqi women. While each presentation was interesting in its own right, and Mavic Cabrera-Balleza gave an insightful view to the situation of women and armed conflict in the Asia Pacific Region, it was a far stretch to see how this panel reflected the regional perspectives (an inside out view) or reflected on the key theme of the CSW 56th session. At one stage in the session Lydia Alpizar (AWID) was cut off from her presentation - the audience wanting to hear what she had to say protested and luckily Lydia was allowed to finish her presentation with a call to advocacy for women's groups. Seeking out other forms of partnerships to influence women's policy, civil society groups should be part of policy, monitoring and evaluation, implementation and planning. She called for UN Women to continue resources to women's organisations and to strengthen the mechanisms of engagement between UN Women and women's groups. Make these mechanisms transparent and clear. What UN Women have not done well to date is the engagement of civil society - there was a call for UN Women by the next Executive Board meeting to have set up all civil society regional advisory groups and global advisory group. The groups should be set up, with clear and transparent mechanisms and criteria as to how civil society representation was engaged. Timeframe of engagement and process for engagement. Again, while each speaker was interesting and enlightening in their own right, the trend to present global organisation’s views of the region, rather than engaging regional organisations to reflect the views from their own regions is a worrying trend in a shrinking political space for women.

Stay tuned....

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