Youth Activists Warn Civil Society at Risk Due to Coronavirus

Last week, the three of us were expecting to be in New York at the 64th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) as youth activists.

“Women’s rights are human rights!” shouted those marching in Manhattan in March 2015, referencing the groundbreaking a speech by then First Lady Hillary Clinton. (Democratic Underground)

We are three college students and members of the International Youth Leadership Council of Advocates for Youth. We are passionate about advocating for the sexual and reproductive rights (SRHR) of youth in the Global South. We’re working towards an end to child marriage, homophobia, abortion stigma and gender-based discrimination and violence.

We were excited to attend CSW because it would’ve given us the opportunity to build relationships with other organizers from around the world—in addition to giving us the opportunity to advocate for the rights of youth and LGBTQI+ folks in particular. This work means a great deal to us. 

However, in light of the unprecedented coronavirus outbreak and concerns around its spread, this year’s CSW has been suspended.

The political declaration that would normally be negotiated over the two-week conference was adopted—without nearly any civil society input—on March 9.

While we are personally disappointed about not being able to participate in CSW this week, we are especially distraught about the implications that this suspension has for feminists in the Global South and civil society as a whole and their ability to contribute and advocate for their rights.

After activists from Fiji announced that they would not attend CSW due to concerns surrounding coronavirus, many other Global South organizations followed suit as an act of solidarity. Their decision to not attend CSW was a heavy one that rested on the importance of protecting their own communities. This demonstrates the deep importance of the CSW to activists around the world and embodies the principle of “without one of us, then none of us.” 

Civil society is an essential component of UN processes, and engages in crucial work during CSW to ensure that the needs of women all over the world are properly addressed in the political declaration. The CSW creates an incredible environment in which civil society can advocate for more progressive policies, build coalitions across the world and ensure that UN processes and the yearly mandate of UN Women is adopted with the input of feminists on the ground.

During the inaugural meetings of the UN General Assembly in February 1946, a Sub-commission dedicated to the Status of Women was established under the Commission on Human Rights. (UN Women)

By suspending the conference and adopting the declaration without debate and input from civil society, activists around the world have missed a critical opportunity—and the UN has not provided a viable alternative for our engagement. In turn, the very voices the UN claims to serve have been silenced.

For many activists, particularly in the Global South, CSW is the main avenue for global advocacy. These activists spend all year fundraising and preparing to attend the conference—so the suspension of CSW a mere week before it was about to begin has far-reaching financial and logistical consequences.

Even if CSW is rescheduled for a later date in the year, many activists will still be unable to attend. Securing the funds to get to New York for this week was already very challenging for many activists, and it’s likely impossible for them to be able to do it again. These financial and logistical ramifications affect those that are already the most marginalized in UN processes; young people, people with disabilities, and activists from the Global South will be further excluded from these spaces as a result of the suspension. 

Given that activists were not able to inform this year’s negotiations and political declaration on-site at the CSW, we urge UN member states to commit to the principles of the Feminist Declaration, a document drafted over the course of the CSW each year by the Women’s Rights Caucus, a global coalition of over 200 organizations working to advance women’s human rights internationally, regionally, nationally and locally.

This declaration discusses the harmful effects of the neoliberal economic order includes sex workers in the conversation, and emphasizes the health and well-being of young LGBTQ+ people—calling on member states to go beyond affirmations made in the adopted declaration and rather commit to a more robust agenda that will advance gender equality and women’s and girls’ human rights.

Luckily, feminist civil society is persistent and resistant. Platforms such as the Generation Equality Forum are still pushing for advocacy beyond the CSW. Organizations based in New York will continue to lobby international missions, and webinars and live chats will provide spaces for shared discussion. International Women’s Day still provided an opportunity for community building around the world.

While the CSW is so important to global feminism, the feminist fight does not begin and end now. 

As youth activists, we believe that young people, LGBTQ+ folks and Global South feminists should be at the forefront of every conversation surrounding global gender policy. Especially given that this year is the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, the CSW was going to serve as a platform to formulate feminist policy going forward until 2030. These decisions cannot be made without the input of the most marginalized communities around the world.

Amidst these uncertain times, we hope that UN Women will create a clear path forward for civil society engagement for CSW and future UN processes, to ensure that women around the world may continue to connect and advocate for shared liberation through 2030 and beyond.