The CSW 56 and the Centrality of Dignity to any Gender-Based Agenda
by Tukeni Obasi
This week, in the company of several members of the World Youth Alliance, I hopped on an important history train that had set out as far back as 1946. The fifty-sixth session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), centered around the theme of rural women empowerment, brought key stakeholders to The United Nations Headquarters in New York to share their success and best practices in this field. Challenges were to be discussed, strategies were to be laid out and partnerships from across different sectors, countries and regions were to be forged. The session was opened by the former president of Chile and now Executive Director of UN Women- Michelle Bachelet.
Central to many of the panel discussions at this year’s session of the CSW has been the issue of sexual and reproductive rights as a means to counteract the forces of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV). Panelists – including ministers and members of Parliament from countries across the world – spoke, among many other things, about the need to empower women and give them full control of their bodies. These discussions have been very rich, speaking to the psychological and immaterial shackles that prevent women from realizing their full potential. They touched on issues of body image, media and societal norms (concerning females), access to education, employment opportunities, quotas and the very important issue of political participation.
The discussions on bodily control and sexual rights spawned an offshoot debate about the sexualization of girls. This counter-session criticized the International Planned Parenthood Federation and several other organizations for their “sexualization of children”. More importantly, this offshoot panel criticized these bodies for campaigning for sexual freedoms at the expense of societal values and breaking down barriers of while keeping mum on the biological, social and psychological implications of indiscriminate and precocious sexual activity on young people. The movement called on families and CSOs to protect the innocence of children.
Of the issues being discussed at the CSW, I was especially concerned about the demonization of certain women through gender-based practices such as virginity testing. These practices, which purport to celebrate purity in girls, equate purity with dignity. Through name-calling and the use of profane words to label non-virgin women, these women (many of whom are victims of sexual violence) are unjustly demonized and punished. These practices make no attempt to bring perpetrators of violence to book and socialize people especially of the masculine gender into a culture of non-violence. The valorization of sexual decisions especially threatens the dignity of girls who either by their own decisions or through acts of rape have not pursued the path of abstinence. Such valorization should be strongly discouraged. All women regardless of their sexual or health status must be treated with respect and measures must be taken to ensure that they have access to full mental, psychological and physical healthcare.
As members of the World Youth Alliance, we prepared for the CSW by arming ourselves with the knowledge of the dignity of the human person. Through its advocacy efforts, the World Youth Alliance continues to lobby UN commissions and other international bodies to make the human person the centre of any international agenda. The implications of this knowledge are listed. First, it means that freedoms cannot be won at the expense of dignity. Sidestepping important issues of reproductive health, which includes proper and adequate maternal health in favor of a blanket reproductive rights policy is not the way to go. Reproductive health is especially undermined when it shows no commitment to these issues but jeopardizes the physical, mental and psychological health of women and negates the life of her unborn baby. Secondly, a biased focus on stop-gap measures of propping up gender quotas and expanding political and economic freedoms without any real socialization in schools and other establishments on the nature of the dignity of the human person and what that implies for relations with all people of the female sex will achieve only limited results. To get far, paradigms must be shifted and mentalities must be changed.
The struggle continues. As the panel goes into negotiations and resolutions in the last week of the conference, the world will be watching. It is our hope that delegates and the international civil society will be on their feet steering the agenda in the right course. The simultaneous expansion and streamlining of the Beijing Platform for Action leading to a more comprehensive approach with specific outcome objectives remains the dream. But it is a dream that can be achieved. As history has shown us time and time again, in the end, solidarity and human will are as potent as they are pertinent.