United Nations Commission on the Status of Women

United Methodist Women Statement to the Sixtieth Commission on the Status of Women, March 2016

“Women’s empowerment and its link to sustainable development.”

United Methodist Women Statement to the Sixtieth Commission on the Status of Women, March 2016

Because women are central to development at all levels, women’s experience must be at the core of decision-making and policy-making at all levels. The experience of women, as well as their strengths and participation, must move society toward ending women’s exclusion and address women’s needs. This must be at the center of all development work. There is no issue to which this does not apply. Further, because of women’s historic exclusion, their inclusion would be the single biggest advance for the entire development agenda. It is clear that women play an essential role in the workforce, production, consumption, education, care work and environmental conservation, yet they continue to be underrepresented in policy-making and development policy.

The adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), outlines significant areas for advancing women’s human rights. United Methodist Women (UMW), a U.S. faith-based women’s organization of some 800,000 members with a global reach, commits to enabling and creating space for directly affected communities of women to hold governments accountable on SDG implementation and to claim their human rights. Member states and the United Nations system must do more than listen to grassroots women’s voices—they must implement policy based upon women’s lived experience.

UMW Identity and Responsibility

Faith-based women’s organizations bring unique resources and concerns to the work of women’s human rights. As a Christian women’s organization, UMW focuses on living out the core beliefs of our tradition, which affirms that all human beings are created in the image of God – across gender, race, class, sexual orientation, national status and other identities. When some people are marginalized, our faith compels us to seek justice, and our lens begins with the most marginalized. We listen to their voices and look to their leadership.

We seek internal changes within the church and the world to affirm women and to open spaces for them to claim their voices and their rights. We are present in communities across the United States and around the world. We bring together people and material resources to address women’s critical development concerns, as well as serving as a voice for collective advocacy that communicates to decision-makers. We advocate for equality and material well-being; we also offer a community of belonging and faith that gives deep meaning, joy and affirmation to women around the world. At a time of polarization within and across religious traditions and society, we work with others on these efforts based on a shared commitment toward wholeness, not limited to those who share our beliefs and without imposing our beliefs.

The Sustainable Development Goals

We welcome the universality of the new development goals (SDGs), which apply to all nations alike, as well as honing a focus on nondiscrimination, which recognizes the particular concerns of women facing multiple oppressions. We celebrate commitments to gender equality and women’s empowerment as both a cross-cutting theme and the stand-alone SDG goal number 5. We affirm the agenda’s anchor in international human rights commitments. We celebrate the specific goal of addressing inequality. We honor the inclusive way that the SDGs were created, which incorporated the voice of civil society, including women’s organizations that reflect the lived experience of women around the world. The breadth of the agenda also represents the increased participation and concerns of governments from developing countries.

As we work with member states and the United Nations System in SDG implementation, we will strive to address significant concerns embedded in the SDGs themselves. Commitment to the goals remains voluntary. There is a tension between inadequate government reporting mechanisms for the SDGs and binding commitments through trade agreements. This tension threatens to undermine the goals. The goals also do not consistently align with existing international law, standards and obligations, including international human rights law. And the goals outlined regarding women’s equality are less specific and systemic than the forward-thinking Beijing Platform for Action commitments. The SDGs look to the private sector to play a greater role in financing development, but do not create a binding instrument to regulate the activities of transnational corporations. And the role of civil society in monitoring them is unclear.

The assumption is that increased growth will enable nations to meet development goals. However, not only has global growth failed to lead to a reduction of poverty due to unequal distribution of resources, but current forms of extraction, production and consumption are destroying the planet. According to the Global Footprint Project , the current development model overshoots the planet’s capacity by about 50% each year,  even prior to the UN’s call for significant new growth.

Efforts to fulfill the SDGs will need to address these core assumptions about growth and the market, while keeping economic and social human rights commitments central in terms of measurable outcomes. Greater redistribution of national and global resources will enable development that is less reliant on the private sector. This includes progressive taxation, cuts in military spending, a global financial transaction tax and policies that enable genuine development (such as greater national control over commodity prices and terms of trade) as an alternative to development aid that comes with conditions. Gender, race and economic power imbalances within and between nations must be addressed to achieve women’s rights and the SDGs.

Women’s Empowerment

To a great extent, women are already empowered. Women know what they need and many grassroots women leaders are actively seeking to claim rights. Yet, too frequently, they are cut out of decision-making circles, ignored, or even criminalized, jailed and killed. Rather than seek to “empower” women, United Methodist Women and our partners work to create the space for empowered women to claim their voices and their rights, through leadership development and advocacy opportunities and by opening doors to places of power.

Women’s efforts to claim economic and social human rights, including water, food, health, housing and sanitation are interrelated, as are the SDGs. States have the obligation to fulfill these rights and should do so by drawing on the grassroots knowledge of women. Plans for measuring progress on the SDGs must include mechanisms for grassroots women’s active participation.

“Women’s empowerment” is a popular theme, but much of the discourse seeks to assist or rescue “victims” rather than recognizing women’s individual and collective agency and affirming their central role in struggles for rights and development. Many member states affirm the SDGs, yet attack and arrest peaceful protesters,  including women who resist land-grabs by foreign governments; mining and oil extraction by transnational corporations; or displacement of their farms by corporate agriculture. Women’s Human Rights Defenders continue to be attacked, jailed, or killed because of their efforts. Genuine “empowerment” recognizes women’s local knowledge, skills and leadership and engages them in decision-making at all levels, affirming their right to organize and claim rights.

Empowerment is a social process that enables women to gain control over their own lives and to claim power in their lives, communities and society by acting on priorities that they define. This is particularly true for young women leaders, who are too often dismissed. Women are already engaged in local development, yet their knowledge is not effectively integrated into local, national and global policies through strong mechanisms of accountability.

The current economic system frequently undermines women’s empowerment and their role in development. Women have been excluded from access to capital in large and small ways for centuries. There is a linkage between rural and urban poverty. The failure of current “development” can be seen vividly in the lives of rural women, many of whom produce food for their families and local markets. When agricultural export policies, food prices or trade deals undermine their livelihoods and their voices are not heard, many are forced to leave the land and migrate to cities. Urban centers may lack decent work, housing, water, sanitation and other rights. In some cases, women cross borders seeking livelihoods and safety, in a continuum of migration that is often accompanied by exploitation and the denial of human rights.

United Methodist Women responds to this reality through both service and advocacy. The organization engages in leadership development around the world to catalyze women’s knowledge and strengthen their skills so they can collectively meet needs and claim rights. A priority is leadership development for young women, grassroots women and local members. We have four interrelated priority areas connected through the lens of inequality. They include Maternal and Child Health; Climate Justice; Criminalization of Communities of Color; and Economic Inequality. We work on these by addressing the intersections of race, class and other oppressions. We seek an end to militarism and affirm women’s role in peacemaking as an essential element of just and sustainable development.

Sixtieth Commission on the Status of Women Outcome Document

As nations gather to address women’s empowerment for development at the sixtieth Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), we call on the commission to include the following in the Outcome Document, and to advocate with member states and the UN System to incorporate these elements in broader SDG implementation:

  1. Take very specific steps to enable women’s organizations, particularly grassroots women and young women, to claim rights, participate in decision-making about policies that affect their lives and engage in monitoring implementation of the SDGs. This includes women’s role in monitoring national plans, and regional and international processes.
  2. Include accountability on human rights instruments and existing gender equality commitments (including International Conference on Population and Development/Cairo, Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), UN Security Council Resolution 1325, International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (Migrant Rights Convention), International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the International Convenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, among others) as a measure of government accountability on SDG implementation.
  3. Insist on gender equality as a cross-cutting concern that is measurable in ALL of the SDGs. In reporting, measuring and monitoring, do not allow gender to become boxed into SDG Goal 5. Work to increase awareness of gender equality and women’s empowerment within the context of the SDGs, poverty eradication and financing for development.
  4. Affirm democratic spaces for mobilization to shape political agendas and claim rights. Stand up for Women Human Rights Defenders and recognize their critical role in advancing sustainable development by voicing community concerns. Enable political space for women to hold governments accountable regarding resource allocation, spending and corruption.
  5. Recognize that the urgent need to address global inequalities is not fifteen years in the future, but now. Governments and the UN System must monitor sustainable development in the context of existing international reporting mechanisms and recognize civil society–led reviews of progress in the interim.
  6. Support and enable women to engage in citizen-led monitoring mechanisms at the municipal level, related to international human rights conventions including CERD, CEDAW and the Migrant Rights Convention. These conventions should be mainstreamed into local government decision-making.
  7. Fund and implement the gathering of data disaggregated by gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual identity and migration status to accurately monitor implementation.
  8. Create binding legal mechanisms for corporate accountability. Seek alternatives to private sector development financing through redistribution of public resources, a global financial transactions tax and cuts in military spending.
  9. Focus on the creation of jobs with living wages that do not undermine nature, the implementation of policies that guarantee decent work, as well as provisions for social protections.
  10. Do participant research and data collection to accurately understand and proactively address ongoing inequality, patriarchal practices and gendered power imbalances within the UN System itself.

United Methodist Women is committed to women’s empowerment in its truest sense—supporting and developing leaders to make change and claim rights. We welcome the 2030 Development Agenda as an opportunity to support women’s active engagement in defining what development means and how it can be achieved in the context of women’s human rights.

Posted or updated: 3/1/2016 12:00:00 AM