The 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is taking place right now at the United Nations' Headquarters in New York. ActionAid is in attendance, joining women's rights organisations and gender equality advocates from around the world to call upon commission members to make a strong stand for women's economic rights.

Cover of the ActionAid report: Making Care Visible: Women's unpaid care work in Nepal, Nigeria and Kenya
Cover of the ActionAid report: Making Care Visible: Women's unpaid care work in Nepal, Nigeria and Kenya
Photo: ActionAid

Despite this call coming as a timely response to the harsh reality of the exploitation of women across the globe, some Member States are trying to water down the wording on the realisation of women’s economic rights - for example women's rights to work and their rights at work - in the draft CSW document.

The language calling for macro-economic policies, which are to be aligned with the existing human rights standards and obligations, faces similar fierce opposition.

Furthermore, on the premise of not ‘pre-empting’ the new development goals, some Member States refuse even to discuss their government’s responsibility to recognise and redistribute the burden of women’s unpaid care work.

Unless all parties come to an agreement that preserves this critical aspect of women’s rights, the CSW outcome will be disappointing.  Its inclusion is vital to lay the much-needed transformative ground for the forthcoming high-level debates on the New Development Agenda post 2015.

Why is addressing the exploitation of women at work so important?

There is no doubt that on virtually every global measure women are more economically excluded than men. More and more women have entered the labour market in recent decades. This has coincided with high rates of informalisation and deregulation of labour, especially across the Global South. In general women are concentrated in temporary, low paid and insecure employment, lacking benefits such as health coverage, paid leave or the right to collective bargaining.

The International Labour Organization estimates that in 2012, more than half of all employed women worldwide were in informal vulnerable employment, while in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, over 80 per cent of all jobs for women are in the informal sector work.

Invisible workers

Furthermore, women’s paid work is only one part of most women’s total workload, much of which remains invisible in national statistics. Women across the world are disproportionately responsible for unpaid care work which includes cooking, cleaning, taking care of children, the ill and the elderly – work done both at home and in the community.

Such a heavy and unequal unpaid care workload affects women’s enjoyment of their rights to education, decent work, political participation or leisure. 

For countries where data is available, women spend, on average, roughly twice as long than men on domestic work including family care. The disparity is starker in India with women spending six hours and men only 36 minutes.

This work is intensified for women living in contexts of poverty, social exclusion, economic crisis, environmental degradation, natural disasters, and where there is inadequate access to infrastructure and public services.

Women’s work and human rights: where do we stand?

It has been more than 30 years since the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979) obliged States to take all appropriate measures to guarantee women’s equal rights.  These include the right to decent work, job security, equal pay for equal work, social security and safe working conditions.

Furthermore, the recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights positioned unequal distribution of unpaid care as a key human rights issue that keeps women in poverty and stunts progress towards gender equality.

It is thus imperative that this year's CSW conclusions take no backwards steps. 

Alongside women’s organisations and gender equality advocates, ActionAid calls upon the Member States to agree on conclusions that recognise women’s work in its entirety - from the care of ailing parents, to the long hours on the factory floor – and address the intersecting and structural forms of discrimination that women face in accessing decent work, a living wage, and universal protection, alongside recognising and redistributing their unpaid care work.

Follow Kasia on twitter at @KasiaStasz

Reclaiming Feminism

Kayshani Gibbon's picture
Kayshani Gibbon Campaigns Volunteer

With the passing of International Women’s Day last week, I seem to have had an extraordinary amount of conversations regarding women’s rights. One of particular interest was with a good friend of mine, who challenged my desire to be called a Feminist - I knew him to be in touch with contemporary movements at university, and his views came as a surprise to me. You don’t hate guys, he said, and why is it called feminism if it’s all about equality? You don’t need feminism in this country anyway; women in the West already have rights. I recognise that this is probably what the majority of people in our society think, but I had hoped he was one person I wouldn’t have to win over.

) Maybe the issues of gender inequality are more blaringly obvious in some of the developing countries ActionAid works in, where many women don’t have access to education, work, or rights that protect them from violence. However, I was taken aback by his claims that there was no room for improvement in the UK, after all there are still some nuanced differences in the way society treats men and women. Women have less economic power, earning less than men in the same positions. Women have less political power, as there are fewer women in parliament representing their views (only 23%).

One aspect in particular that I thought wouldn’t have escaped his notice while we were studying together, is the objectification of women. It plays a huge part in lad culture at universities, which in turn has extremely negative effects on women – impacting their mental and physical health, and preventing them from reaching their full potential.

In fact I asked him, don’t you find the current discourse on this topic patronising? Is it true that as a young male you just can’t keep your thoughts and hands to yourself? Isn’t it ironic that girls and women are taught to cover up, rather than men taught to have some manners?

So far, men have set the parameters of the system, and thus the system favours men. The reason I want to change this is not because I hate men, but because I want all women, regardless of race, class or religion, to have access to the same economic, political and social opportunities as men, so that we may be considered equals.  That is why it’s called a feminist movement, as it strives to bring female voices to the table where men are already listened to. It’s an issue that affects women worldwide, and I think by standing up for our feminist beliefs across the world we can start to change the system together.

Are you on my side yet? I asked - and he said he’d think about it.

If you need further persuasion, then here is a good place to search for some inspiration. Nevertheless, if you’re not up for joining, that’s fine – just let me get on with it.

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) convenes every March in the UN headquarters in New York and is a special date in every feminist and women’s rights calendar.

Kasia outside the UN in New York for the Commission on the Status of Women.
Kasia outside the UN in New York for the Commission on the Status of Women.
Photo: Kasia Staszewska, ActionAid

Being the principal global policy-making body dedicated exclusively to gender equality and women’s rights, for two weeks the Commission on the Status of Women brings together representatives of the Member States, UN agencies, women’s rights and civil society organisations.

This year more than 6000 of us are in town for the annual evaluation of progress, standards setting and policy formulation to promote women’s advancement worldwide.

New development agenda: stakes are high

This year stakes are exceptionally high due to the upcoming review of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which will finish just one year from now. Not surprisingly, the new development framework post 2015 is the major item on the agenda: it will define the development priorities for the next decade. 

Although the official focus of the meeting that started this Monday 10th March, is to review the progress the MDGs have brought for women and girls, everyone’s eyes are already on the new framework that will replace them.

This is for a very good reason: the anticipated Commission's agreed conclusions will be the key contribution putting forward women’s and girls’ priorities for the new ‘development era’ post 2015.

The MDGs didn’t address issues of critical importance for women and girls – gender based violence, or women’s disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care work, to name but a few - nor were they consulted or agreed together with women’s organisations.

Because of this, it is imperative that the process leading to the new development agenda is not business as usual, but lays the solid groundwork for women’s and girls’ full enjoyment of all their human rights.

Making gains on the battleground

Although everyone seems to agree that the overall progress in the implementation of the MDGs has been unacceptably slow, there is still no agreement about the ways to deliver real change for women and girls In its High Level Statement: 'Accelerating Progress on the MDGs for Women and Girls and Realising Women's and Girls' Rights in the Post-2015 Development Agenda', Heads of UN Agencies called upon all governments to honor their obligations and build the new development framework in line with existing human rights norms and agreements.

The resonance of their appeal, however, remains to be seen, as negotiations on the CSW outcome document will resume today and will continue until at least the official end of the event, Friday 21st March.

With the CSW being the regular battleground between progressive and more conservative forces, ‘winning’ an official CSW recommendation to create a stand-alone goal on gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment for the new agenda post 2015 will be a key outcome sought by women’s rights advocates, including ActionAid, in the forthcoming week.

ActionAid subscribes to the Feminist Declaration Post

Mindful that the struggle for women’s rights is global, ActionAid representatives from UK, Uganda, Kenya, Australia, Sierra Leone, India and other countries have joined forces with women’s, feminist and civil society organisations from all regions of the world in a common effort for strong CSW conclusions.

We are one of more than 340 organisations subscribed to the Feminist Declaration Post 2015, 'Gender, Economic, Social and Ecological Justice for Sustainable Development', calling for the new development agenda to be based on universality of human rights, substantive equality, end the shocking inequality of wealth, power and resources, and ensure that poor women are put at its centre.

This weekend ActionAid celebrated International Women's Day in York with the Women Liberal Democrats at their 2014 Spring party conference.

Melanie Ward represents ActionAid at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference 2014
Melanie Ward represents ActionAid at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference 2014
Photo: ActionAid/Florence Richard De Vesvrotte

To mark the day we held a panel discussion with Baroness Northover, lead spokesperson in the House of Lords on International Development, Tessa Munt, MP for Wells and aide to Business Secretary Vince Cable, and our own Melanie Ward, Head of Advocacy for ActionAid UK.

Addressing a packed room, Melanie called for more action from the Government to tackle women’s economic inequality.  She also acknowledged all the good work being done post the Millenium Development Goals agenda to put an end to female genital mutilation and early marriage.

Championing Women's Economic Equality

Great challenges remain, however, so at the end of this year ActionAid will be launching a new campaign on the next greatest (and very difficult) challenge to reach gender balance: women’s economic inequality.

This will require confronting social and cultural preconceptions in our own countries and societies. Recognising women’s unpaid care work and the barriers to decent work will demand nations which think they are doing well in tackling gender inequality to redouble their efforts.

Involving women in the reconstruction of their future

2014 marks the year British troops are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan. Melanie called for the UK to make sure discussions over the country's future include at least one third of women participants at the negotiating table.

This is a continuation of ActionAid's relentless efforts these past three years to ensure women's full participation in the reconstruction of their future. Last week the issue was debated in Parliament again and Fiona O'Donnell MP wrote a blog strongly supporting women's representation.

Advocacy against Tax Avoidance

Last but not least, ActionAid participated in a competition to submit policy ideas to the Liberal Democrats. Our anti-tax-dodging pitch, which broadly asked the Liberal Democrats to take serious action to tackle tax avoidance, was listened to by the President of the Liberal Democrats Tim Farron MP, The Rt Hon David Laws MP, Dr Julian Huppert MP and some of the Deputy Prime Minister's advisers. We hope this is a piece of policy they will pick up as the general election approaches.

That's it from me on the Liberal Democrats Spring Conference 2014.

Tax justice campaigning from Zambia to Denmark

Natasha Adams's picture
Natasha Adams Activism Officer

I had the amazing opportunity to visit ActionAid Zambia with a group of young activists from ActionAid Denmark a couple of weeks ago. Now our tax justice campaign has truly gone global, it’s great to see how different countries are learning from each other and working together to tackle tax dodging.

Zambia is a beautiful country, and the communities we visited were friendly and welcoming, but it was sobering to see the poverty of young farmers struggling to see hope for a better future however hard they worked.

We visited the copperbelt, and met activists and citizens from the communities that live next door to several large mines. Everywhere we went the story was the same - people complained about about the mines not paying their fair share and about pollution. Although the mines we visited had done some good work in communities, like building roads and refurbishing schools, the general consensus was that they weren’t doing nearly enough.

ActionAid Zambia partner organisation CTPD (Centre for Trade Policy and Development) works to challenge mining companies like Glencore, accused of dodging taxes in the country. When we visited the CTPD office, Programme Officer Nkula Edward Goma said “Over the last 10 years Zambia lost about $8.8bn through tax evasion and illicit financial flows: that is a lot of money that could alleviate poverty. Right now we have about 60% of people living below the poverty line, earning less than $2 a day. What belongs to Zambia should remain in Zambia …then maybe our people would be much better off.”

ActionAid Zambia launched their public campaign on tax justice last year with a march in Lusaka, joining the international call for Barclays to stop promoting tax havens in Africa. As we found out on the trip, campaigning in Zambia is not easy. My Zambian colleagues struggled for weeks to get the permit they needed for the march to happen, without which they could have faced jail for going ahead. This march was great example of global campaign collaboration, using facts from the UK ‘Time to Clean Up’ report, and gold jumpsuits similar to those used in the Danish tax power campaign (these suits came together for the first time in the picture above).

It was really inspiring to meet many young Zambian campaigners (part of the international Activista network), determined to campaign even when things are difficult. Charity Chizola, who studies law at the University of Zambia, had this message for tax justice campaigners from the UK and Denmark:  “They should keep fighting. Sometimes we do have a number of challenges and feel we shouldn’t go on, but what we are fighting for is greater, and is for the benefit of every citizen, every youth, every child, every elderly person that is out there.”

The trip ended with a day devoted to sharing our tax campaigning achievements from the UK, Denmark and Zambia, and we discussed how to strengthen links between ActionAid campaigners fighting for tax justice around the world. Danish students, also part of the Activista network, were getting ready for their tax justice themed Tour De Future cycle protest which travels across Denmark in the spring. Marie Uldall Thomsen, a Danish student, said “I didn't feel part of a global Network... But now after having been in Zambia, I have so many connections. It has a bigger effect to be able to say that this is a global campaign and everything that we do is being done in Zambia, UK, Uganda and so on.”

I’ve been inspired to work even harder to keep the pressure on Barclays since returning home –if Barclays stops promoting tax havens in Africa, this could be an important step forwards for countries like Zambia to collect the taxes they are due. We’re asking campaigners who want to do more to get their MP involved and to join the Community Campaigner network. 

It's International Women’s Day tomorrow - and it's got me thinking about the big issues that remain in the fight for women’s rights across the world. Street harrassment, violence against women and girls and economic inequality are widespread. 

Sandhya, 31, is part of a project working on unpaid care in Nepal.
Sandhya, 31, is part of a project working on unpaid care in Nepal.
Photo: NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati/ActionAid

There's so much to do, but the issue that comes to my mind is women's role in unpaid care. So often it still falls to women. It's tasks like housework, childcare, and caring for sick or elderly people - and it has a huge effect on women's lives and work.

In the last few days many column inches have been dedicated to how childcare in the UK now costs more than mortgage repayments. And attention has also been cast on news that the UK has fallen to 18th place in the Women in Work Index. At the top of the index are Nordic countries where, the study states, 'childcare and household tasks are shared more equally between parents'.

Unpaid care limits women's choices

Unpaid care is clearly still a big issue in the UK. Here women spend on average 258 minutes per day doing unpaid care, compared to men's 141 minutes. But it is an even bigger issue in many of the poor countries where ActionAid works where, despite the enormous value of women's work caring for others, fetching water, and feeding the family, this contribution is taken for granted. Why it falls to women to do all of this is something that is rarely questioned.

Unpaid care takes time - and it limits women's choices, the enjoyment of their rights and their freedom to participate in their communities and get a job. It locks women into a cycle of poverty. 

ActionAid is working to tackle the issue of unpaid care across many of the countries we work in. Projects in Nepal, Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda see communities tracking the amount of time spent on unpaid care work in time diaries. Sandhya, shown in the photo here, keeps such a diary. The diaries have made the work more valued and recognised - and men in the community have started sharing the burden.

There are many issues wrapped up in women’s rights. Unpaid care is just one of them, but it is an extremely important issue and ActionAid UK will be working more on it in the coming months.

International Women's Day

Working to improve women’s rights is central to ActionAid’s approach. We have lots planned to celebrate International Women’s Day – from a rally in Bangladesh addressing violence against women and girls; and an awareness-raising workshop around women’s rights to land in the DRC, to a radio show in Nigeria discussing the national unpaid care framework.

Here in the UK we will be commemorating the day at the Women of the World Festival which is showing a play called ‘Nirbhaya’ about the brutal rape of a young woman in Delhi at the end of last year. The attack sparked global news coverage. We have created an installation at the event for people to add their  messages. It's there to help break the silence surrounding violence against women and girls.

There is lots of exciting and important work around women’s rights going on around the world. I wonder how far we will have come, especially on the issue of unpaid care, by International Women’s Day next year.