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Women's (in)equality and the media: Engaging with the UN Commission on the Status of Women

Do women have equal access to media? Are they equally portrayed in news? Are ICTs equally available to them? The answer is a clear "no". The more interesting question is: What can we do about it?

At the 2018 annual meeting at UN Headquarters in New York, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) will be reviewing implementation of the 2003 "agreed conclusions" on the theme of participation in and access of women to the media.

Here is IFEX's 5-minute IFEX guide to the CSW.

This is one in a series of IFEX explainers aimed at strengthening the ability of civil society to engage in global spaces for free expression advocacy. To visit the hub page and see the whole set, click here.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of Un Women and Chair of the Commission on the Status of Women, speaks to the press at the UN headquarters in New York, 10 March 2016
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of Un Women and Chair of the Commission on the Status of Women, speaks to the press at the UN headquarters in New York, 10 March 2016

Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

"Everywhere the potential exists for the media to make a far greater contribution to the advancement of women."
Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995)

1. Commission on the Status of Women: what is it?

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is the principal intergovernmental body dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. CSW's roadmap is the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a landmark document approved in a conference that brought together more than 30,000 governmental representatives and women's rights activists to Beijing in 1995.

Section J of the Platform for Action is about "women and media". It calls for increasing participation and access of women to media and for a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in media.

The CSW comprises 45 States on the basis of equitable geographical distribution; they are elected for a period of four years. Five of these members constitute the Bureau of the Commission, which has an oversight role.

2. When does the CSW meet and what do they talk about?

Every March, the CSW's two-week session takes place at UN headquarters in New York. UN Member States' representatives, UN entities and civil society organisations gather to discuss progress and gaps in the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, including those related to women and freedom of expression.

It is impossible to review the goals of the entire Platform for Action at every session, so each year the CSW focuses on three themes, the so-called "priority theme", the "review theme" and the "emerging theme".

• The priority theme is the main focus of the CSW agenda and debates. One of the most important CSW outcomes is the agreed conclusions in relation to the priority theme. These are action-oriented recommendations on the priority theme to be implemented by States and other institutions, civil society groups, etc.
• The goal of the review theme is to monitor implementation of a past priority.
• While the priority and review themes are decided well in advance, the emerging theme is announced closer to the CSW meeting. As its name implies, it is related to emerging challenges or trends. In relation to gender and media, an emerging theme could be, for example, online harassment to women, or the safety of women journalists.

3. Ok, so concretely, what happens during the 2-week CSW session?

At each session at UN headquarters in New York, the CSW:

Holds a ministerial meeting to discuss progress and commitments by States on gender equality with a particular focus on the priority theme.
• Discusses one priority theme.
• Evaluates progress in the implementation of one review theme. In 2018, for example, the review theme is "participation in and access of women to the media," which will review the implementation of the agreed conclusions on this theme from the 47th CSW in 2003.
• Addresses emerging issues, trends, focus areas and new approaches to questions affecting the situation of women, that require timely consideration.
• Agrees on further actions for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women by adopting agreed conclusions and resolutions

During the CSW, there are also side events organised by States missions, sometimes in cooperation with civil society organisations.

In parallel to the official CSW meeting, there is an NGO CSW Forum, organised by the NGO Committee on the Status of Women. This forum brings together hundreds of participants to discuss women's rights, with a particular focus on the three main themes of the CSW session. This event takes place outside UN premises. For example, in 2018, a number of these events put the focus on gender, media and free speech.

Going to the 2018 CSW? Check out our schedule of events on the review theme “Participation in and access of women to the media”

4. If I want to participate, what should I do and when should I start?

The CSW meeting in March is the culmination of a year-long process. Here is a list of key moments where NGOs can engage:

Before the CSW meeting

National advocacy: Throughout the year. The most important starting point to influence the CSW process is at the national level. Reach out your government to influence their contributions to the entire CSW process. Advocate for them to implement their agreements and to bring recommendations on the issue of gender and freedom of expression and media to the CSW annual meeting and agreed conclusions.
Regional preparatory consultations: Autumn/Winter. A series of regional consultations take place in the months preceding the CSW with a special focus on the priority theme. These gatherings are by invitation, although in some cases organisations can attend. To be informed and participate you need to contact the UN Women offices in your region or country.
Expert group meeting: Autumn. A 3-day expert group meeting takes place to discuss the priority theme with specialists from around the world. It is usually hosted by one or more UN organisations. Experts contribute through participation in the debates and by submitting analytical papers. Participation in this meeting is by invitation, so you will need to advocate with UN Women, the CSW Bureau and/or the UN body hosting the event to participate. A report including the outcomes of this expert meeting is prepared and published on the CSW website.
Multi-stakeholder forum: January. This forum is organised by UN Women at the UN in New York. Speakers are representatives of UN member states, and the focus is on the priority theme. Nonetheless, any organisation with access to the UN building can attend the event. A report including the outcomes is prepared and published on the CSW website.
Agreed conclusions. Negotiations on the agreed conclusions on the priority theme start months before the CSW official meeting. A first draft, called "zero draft", is prepared and shared with States and observers in January/February. States then make their own contributions based on this draft. Civil society organisations can work with their national governments to propose recommendations; this can be done in coalition with other NGOs. The sooner, the better.
CSW themes. Civil society organisations can advocate in advance to influence the selection of the emerging theme to be discussed at the CSW. For the priority and review themes, decisions are made for periods of 10 years in the multi-year programme; the current programme ends in 2019.

During the CSW meeting

CSW official meeting: March. The CSW takes place in the UN in New York. To participate you need to have ECOSOC status or be invited as part of the delegation of an organisation with this status. During the CSW meeting, participating organisations can influence the development of the "zero draft", although it is debated in closed meetings (officially called "readings"); this should be done informally with UN delegations outside the room.
Written and oral statement requests can be submitted in advance by civil society organisations with ECOSOC status (deadline is in September).
Side events can be organised, always in partnership with UN member States' missions.
• Prepare a communication strategy to support your advocacy goals.

After the CSW meeting

Follow-up on the agreed conclusions and other decisions taken. All decisions made are published on a final report on the CSW website; documents are organised by session.
Use these agreed conclusions when advocating in other international and regional organisations and when contributing to other reports on the issue.
Monitor implementation of agreed conclusions at the national level and advocate with your government to implement these agreements.
Remember to check the Platform for Action and future agreed conclusions when preparing reports and studies related to women and freedom of expression and information.

Tip: One of the challenges is to find information on the CSW processes and calendar in order to participate. Consult the CSW website as well as contact the UN Women office in your country or region.

Apart from CSW meetings, NGOs can submit communications (complaints/appeals/petitions). There is a process for communications with the CSW: You can find detailed information here.

More resources:

CSW website
Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action
A guide for NGOs and Women's Human Rights Activists at the UN and CSW. By NGO-CSW
About the Global Alliance for Media and Gender (GAMAG): A global movement to promote gender equality in and through media
What is the UN Commission on the Status of Women? By OutRight Action International
Australian NGO guide to the CSW. By Jera International

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