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25 Years on From Beijing, COVID-19 Highlights Profound Interconnectedness & Persisting Inequalities

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Viewpoint by Anita Nayar and Aishu Balaji

Anita Nayar is Director and Aishu Balaji Program Coordinator of Regions Refocus. This article is based on the civil society statement delivered at the opening of CSW64/Beijing+25 by Anita Nayar, also Co-Chair of the Gender and Trade Coalition.

NEW YORK (IDN) – On March 9, 2020, New York-based government delegates met at the United Nations (UN) under very different circumstances than originally imagined: with a reduced interim program that excluded global civil society and country-based government representatives due to the postponement of the 64th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW64) under threat of COVID-19.

This virus highlights our potential to meet this global challenge with collective resources and coordinated action that protects our most vulnerable, but it also forces us to confront the inequalities of our current economic model, which has produced underprepared and inequitable healthcare systems driven by profiteering pharmaceutical companies rather than the common good.

And it throws into sharp relief the reality that without well-resourced, universal, public social services, women and girls—who bear the disproportionate burden of professional and unpaid care work—will continue to suffer the most acute impacts of such crises.

Ultimately, this pandemic reminds us of our profound interconnectedness and the hollow nature of our constructed borders—a lesson we must hold on to as we confront the ongoing climate crisis.

CSW64 marks the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, in which global women’s movements shaped a platform to hold governments and international institutions accountable to commitments to women’s human rights, including around macroeconomic issues, the environment, employment, and health.

It is a historic moment to reflect on the progress we have made towards this agenda, what is new about the contemporary context, and the progress yet to be made, including within the multilateral system.

The advocacy and analysis of women’s movements, particularly from the global South, has shaped the most progressive values and policies coming out of the UN over the past 25 years.

Feminist advocacy fought to expand public investment in sexual and reproductive health, and shaped policy around violence, abortion, and adolescent rights while challenging the austerity measures and regressive tax policies that undermine these public services. Feminist analysis revealed the ways in which neoliberalism is fundamentally incompatible with the liberation of all women, and feminist activists advanced this to demand debt cancellation, forcing governments to recognize how stabilization policies and conditional loans increased the poverty of women.

These progressive outcomes were enabled by the availability of funding for diverse constituencies of women to engage with and shape global policy processes. This included support for infrastructure to network across regions and movements, for example through the UN conferences of the 1990s, which facilitated the construction of a collective, global advocacy agenda.

The particular political and historical context of the period preceding Beijing, which saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, also provided opportunities to advance economic and social rights with progressive states.

We are operating today in a different context. Despite feminists mounting a forceful challenge to neoliberalism, those whose interests are served by the neoliberal economic model have reasserted themselves by undermining transparency, accountability, democracy. This has taken a number of forms.

Powerful corporate interests are capturing the state and multilateral spaces, and as governance bodies become further indebted to and intertwined with the private sector, private interests have come to dominate public and collective ones.

Global economic governance institutions are digesting and co-opting the language of feminist movements to repackage the existing economic model and even expand its scope.

Examples include the World Bank/International Monetary Fund masking the brutal impacts of structural adjustment policies by advocating for residual social safety nets alongside the continued privatization of social services; governments at the World Trade Organization expanding trade opportunities for some women within a system predicated on the exploitation of workers and the global South; and the increasing reliance on public-private partnerships in areas central to women’s lives and livelihoods, which pose a serious threat to the delivery of gender transformative infrastructure.

The consequences of this neoliberal resurgence include the escalation of the climate crisis, increasing inequality both within and between countries, and the deepening of all forms of oppression. We are living what promises to be a permanent state of crisis for the most vulnerable in our societies.

In this context, which is both familiar and new, women are yet again at the forefront of the struggles against interlocking systems of oppression—from the movements for trade justice to trans rights to the accountability of corporations to food sovereignty.

And just like 25 years ago, feminist advocacy and analysis need to be elevated and supported to shape the global agenda. This requires long-term and flexible funding, particularly for autonomous South feminist movements; rebuilding global infrastructure that is inclusive and environmentally sustainable to again foster solidarity across movements and regions; and the ambitious reimagining of multilateralism to confront the consolidated forces of neoliberalism head on.

The CSW is a vital global space for women’s movements, which is why the decision to postpone rather than cancel CSW64 is a critical one. Additionally, at the new date, it is important to ensure the meaningful participation of government delegates from the capitals and of women’s movements, and that civil society, particularly from the global South, is well informed, consulted, and resourced.

Existence, we are reminded sometimes in scary ways, is not an individual affair. 25 years after Beijing, we must embrace our interconnectedness, not just in our fight against COVID-19, but our fight to end the assault on women and protect our ecosystems. [IDN-InDepthNews – 11 March 2020]

Photo credit: CSW 64.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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