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CSW63: Did it deliver for adolescent girls?

Closing session at CSW63S. Photo: Ryan Brown/UN Women

The 63rd Commission on the Status of Women (CSW63), held in New York from 11–22 March, focused on ‘Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls’. For two weeks, representatives of Member States negotiated the outcome document. Meanwhile formal and informal sessions showcased good practices on social protection and highlighted some of the biggest challenges that remain.

Reaching agreement on wording that all 193 Member States are happy with – around the steps needed to ensure that women’s and girls’ rights are respected, and on measures to promote their empowerment – is no mean feat. There have been years when it was not possible to agree conclusions to be adopted at all (see CSW56, on the empowerment of rural women and girls).

Conclusions were adopted at CSW63 – but in no small measure, thanks to agile thinking from the current CSW Chair, Her Excellency Geraldine Byrne Nason of Ireland, who made sure that procedural session protocol took precedence. Both the Kingdom of Bahrain and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia dissociated themselves from the agreed language, stating their strong opposition at the inclusion of sexual and reproductive health and rights, sexual education, and the language used on parental rights and the role of the family in achieving women’s empowerment. A new conservative coalition has emerged, as evidenced in the remarks made by the US, Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, Russia and Saudi Arabia – as well new players, like Brazil and Guatemala. This is worrying not just because of the regressive agenda this new-formed bloc is pushing – but also because of their standing as donors.

So did the almost-universally agreed statement deliver for adolescent girls?

It makes three references to adolescents – in relation to: education and after-school services (para. xx); adolescent pregnancy (par. xx); and comprehensive sexual education. This is a slight improvement on the previous two years (2 mentions) and the year before that (1 mention). But it still shows that policy-makers at the highest international levels are still paying insufficient attention to adolescents’ needs.

The various mentions of age sensitivity are welcome – including on age-sensitive land and water transport systems (par. A), in efforts to eliminate all forms of trafficking in persons (par. j.), and in age-appropriate comprehensive education (par. zz). The commitment to ‘ensure access to social protection for unpaid caregivers of all ages’ (par. l) is particularly welcome, echoing GAGE reports.

There is increasing attention to the needs of women and girls with disabilities (par. 2; 23; 25; 31; t; hhh; sss), as per previous recommendations we have made. And I was delighted to see that our push regarding the need to think about context when designing appropriate responses has been reflected in the conclusions (par. 37).

But this year’s conclusions are too vague, and amount to a missed opportunity to call for specific improvements in how programmes are designed and delivered. Evidence shows that cash-plus programmes should be linked to complementary information and services; that we need approaches that work to change social norms; and that we must be mindful of the opportunity costs that can come as a consequence of continued education in adolescence. The text does mention the need for integrated approaches (par. 22; g; ii; ss) – echoing our own recommendations – and also mentions tools like cash transfers and cash-plus programmes (pars. v; w; ee; mm) in poverty alleviation.

The Commission – and national governments – may have missed the opportunity to agree clear and tangible recommendations on social protection initiatives that work, such as payment schedules and modalities that would have a positive result on (adolescent) outcomes. It would have been good to have had more specific indications on the kinds of programmes that are appropriate, where and how – and the role of using existing research (or commissioning research) so that practitioners know when and how to use particular programmes with tailored design features.

One thing that worries me is the tension between the language of universal access to social protection (par. 24), as guaranteed in various human rights instruments, versus calls for ‘nationally appropriate social protection policies’ (par. 23). Given the rise of the new conservative bloc, this is something we should all pay attention to – we must not forget the duties that Member States (countries) sign up to on ratification of internationally agreed legislation. I am also dismayed at particular mentions of the family and family-oriented policies without due consideration to how these policies affect adolescent girls (par 34).

Finally, as someone who champions the role of evidence in policy decision-making, I am concerned that there was little mention of the role of evidence in designing, building and evaluating social protection programmes. Programmes must be designed based on evidence about what works, for whom, and in what contexts. Only with this knowledge can policy-makers make decisions that are responsive to the needs of the populations they serve.