In early March, everything was ready for the 64th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW64), an annual UN gathering dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women. The session’s theme was the review of the implementation of the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. It was supposed to be a special moment for feminists. The Beijing Declaration is their brainchild. It was a result of their unprecedented advocacy, and it served as a blueprint for women’s empowerment ever since.
The main thing feminists feared ahead of the CSW64 was the conservative pushback. In the past decade, a strong conservative block has emerged in the UN. Often referred to as the “Unholy Alliance,” the block includes many post-Soviet, Catholic, and Islamic states, the US, and the Vatican, along with many conservative INGOs. Its members are making UN negotiations on women’s rights increasingly more difficult as they seek, among other things, to eliminate such concepts as “sexual and reproductive health and rights” from UN documents.
But, as feminists were preparing for a showdown with conservatives, the coronavirus had reached the US. Fearing the virus spread among more than 12,000 CSW participants, the event was shortened from the original two weeks to just one day. This format was enough for states to adopt a Political Declaration, but it struck a devastating blow to INGOs. After months of preparations, they were denied access to the UN, and thus an opportunity to influence policy outcomes and the future of women’s rights.
The Remote Advocacy of Feminist and Conservative INGOs
In the upcoming months, the UN has effectively put INGOs under lockdown. With travel and access to the UN being restricted, they had to learn fast how to advocate remotely. We are now several months into the pandemic, and what can be observed is that feminists are significantly more active in this manner of advocacy than conservatives.
First, they are issuing numerous joint documents. After the CSW64 Political Declaration disappointed them, they wrote their own (Joint document 1 and Joint document 2). They have written letters to the President of the Security Council and the UN member state demanding transparency and meaningful NGO participation in UN events. They have also proposed principles for a just recovery from the pandemic, as well as issued recommendations and statements for the inclusion of gender perspective into COVID-responses. Fearing the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on women, they have also engaged in extensive data collection. They have asked for sex-disaggregated data on the impact of COVID-19, as well as started their own monitoring of COVID-responses (link 1 and link 2). Finally, they organize numerous webinars and online meetings and teach each other how to do it. Overall, there is a strong sense of urgency and solidarity.
The same cannot be said for conservative INGOs. On their side, joint statements, declarations, letters, and recommendations are in short supply. Individually, they are most concerned with abortion. On the one hand, they are alarmed that the concept of “sexual and reproductive health and rights,” which they see as a euphemism for abortion, is being included in UN COVID-19 reports, resolutions, and guidelines. On the other hand, they support such pandemic responses as abortion being declared a non-essential medical service, fewer children receiving sexual education, funding for pro-choice organizations being cut, and the US declaring its withdrawal from the WHO. Family is also an important topic for conservatives. However, they do not acknowledge that, under lock-down, women’s unpaid work increases, as well as instances of domestic violence against them. Instead, they portray “the family” as a safe place and lock-down as a blessing that allows families to spend more time together. Overall, conservative INGOs are not translating their pandemic concerns into discernible practices of remote advocacy as proactively as feminists.
What explains the discrepancy in remote advocacy?
In our previous work on feminist and conservative INGOs, we have observed that conservatives have significantly increased their activity in the UN in the past decade. Consequently, we have theorized their style of politics as a backlash, and their entanglement with feminists as pernicious polarization. We have even argued that they are now fully socialized into transnational and multilateral practices. Based on all this, we would not have predicted the discrepancy in remote advocacy between them and feminists. That said, their relative passivity might be down to two reasons. First, conservatives might simply not be as skilled as feminists in using virtual advocacy tools. Second, the manifold consequences of COVID-19 might be supporting rather than harming their agenda, allowing them to be more laid-back. While more research would undoubtedly be needed to discover the real reasons, the sources we looked at indicate that the latter is the case.
Conservatives welcome the redistribution of social and medical resources away from sexual and reproductive health, including instances in which abortion and contraceptives are made inaccessible. They are also not complaining about the reaffirmation of traditional gender roles and women’s deteriorating economic situation brought about by lock-downs. When these developments are coupled with feminists having little access to the UN to advance their agenda, conservatives have little reason to be proactive. Their pro-life, pro-family, and sovereigntist objectives are being realized without them having to do much.
The low impact that the pandemic has had on bringing international actors together is also observable in the case of feminist and conservative NGOs. The high level of polarization that existed before the pandemic has been translated into the new context. However, there has been a change in the distribution of advocacy advantages and disadvantages. Put simply, the two sides are not bearing the consequences of remote advocacy equally. By putting INGOs under lock-down, the UN has unwittingly given conservatives an advantage. The long-term consequences of this move are difficult to predict. Although feminists are currently at a loss concerning their advocacy reach, once the restrictions are lifted, they might capitalize on the high level of mobilization they achieved during the pandemic. On the other hand, amid weak international pressure, COVID-responses and recovery measures harming women’s rights might become a long-term fixture in many parts of the world. This would strengthen the conservative alliance globally, including in the UN, making feminists’ return to pre-pandemic advocacy practices more difficult. Whichever way it goes, the pandemic is sure to change the course of women’s rights and UN advocacy that drives them.