For many feminists worldwide, including young feminists, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) represents the pinnacle of advocacy for women’s rights. But what happens when this space becomes a microcosm of gatekeeping, barriers to access, and tokenised representation? In this piece Sapphire Alexander (she/her)an intersectional Caribbean feminist & FRIDA advisor writes about her experience of CSW 67.
In March 2023, I had the opportunity to co-facilitate a parallel event for the 67th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Hosted by the non-governmental organization, NGO CSW NY (one of three women’s committees of the Conference of NGOs in Consultative Relationship with the UN), this event was my first time as a part of the CSW process.
As someone who’s been engaged in the Caribbean feminist movement since my early teen years, I had high hopes for what I understood to be the Mecca of feminist convenings. I have always held the belief that in order for a feminist movement to thrive it must be intersectional, and inclusive and it must foster intergenerational collaboration.
At 13, I wanted to learn more about feminist concepts. But I struggled to find avenues to do so at the time because most feminist discourse was contained within tertiary academic spaces. As a result, my feminist activism has always been centered in intersectionality and breaking down accessibility barriers to feminist knowledge. I therefore expected CSW to be another stepping stone in my feminist journey, which would help me feel like a part of a movement much bigger than myself and an opportunity to move beyond just the local level of advocacy.
By attending CSW67, I hoped to have an opportunity to connect with a global network of feminists and explore opportunities for collaboration. I hoped to also learn about the priority areas in their regions, the strategies they were implementing to push progress and how these strategies could be replicated in my own local context in Trinidad and Tobago.
All told, I was incredibly excited and grateful for the opportunity to co-facilitate a parallel event at this important convening. But once I got there, I couldn’t help noticing the challenges that my peers were facing mere blocks away at the formal CSW proceedings.
What is CSW?
The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is an annual convening of UN member states, policymakers, advocates and other key stakeholders to discuss the current state of women’s rights, as well as to suggest and implement new measures for the preservation and protection of these rights. It takes place annually in March at the UN Headquarters and comprises two weeks of workshops, panel discussions, parallel events and formal negotiations on the agreed conclusions.
This theme for 2022 was “Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls”. Given this theme, a lot of the discussion was around safeguarding women, girls and nonbinary people within digital spaces, promoting tech literacy, bridging tech access gaps and encouraging women’s participation in the digital space.
I was invited to co-create and co-facilitate a parallel event, held on March 15th, alongside Ayesha Constable, co-founder of GirlsCare JA.The grounding theme of our conversation was “Feminist and Youth-Led Movements”, which for us meant an exploration of the importance of young feminist movements to global advocacy efforts. We also spotlighted the work being done by feminists within the Caribbean.
We designed our session to be an open dialogue about our experiences leading and being a part of young feminist movements, including our challenges, triumphs, advice and thematic priorities.
The space quickly came to life as participants talked about championing girls’ education, workers’ rights and other causes. Attendees also connected with one another, making plans for collaboration and resource sharing.
At the close of our session, I felt it was important for me to highlight the value of community, collaboration and inclusion. This was because my experience at CSW was mostly positive, but it was not without its challenges. And as a young feminist, a major challenge I encountered was barriers to funding for feminists from the global South.
In the weeks leading up to CSW, I was in Miami for the Aspen Climate Summit, where I met two young feminist activists who were also attending CSW. We chatted about our expectations going in and our excitement at participating, and made plans to meet up while in New York. But when the topic of funding came up, my new friends and I realized that we were navigating a far too common reality: like many young activists, we had been provided invitations to the event, but no means to get there.
For young feminists from the global south, access-related support, particularly funding, remains a critical issue. This creates an additional barrier for us and our movements at CSW. Our voices are left out of vital conversations because we simply cannot afford to be in the room.
Considering the price of flights, accommodations and daily expenses in New York, as well as US visa requirements and restrictions, it is extremely difficult for young activists outside of the United States to attend CSW. And unfortunately, this barrier manifests year after year in the stark lack of representation of young feminists from the global south at CSW and other major UN conferences.
These access barriers create a scenario where only those who are privileged enough to be able to support themselves or fortunate enough to acquire funding through sponsor organisations and other means, are able to make contributions within UN spaces. Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Women’s rights organisations, feminist groups and indeed UN agencies can allocate more funding to activists from underrepresented regions, as well as to the promotion of these resources so that activists know they exist and take advantage of them. This way, more young feminists can contribute to the vital conversations happening at CSW.
Unfortunately, a lack of funding wasn’t the only barrier faced by young feminists and others attending CSW. Long lines at the UN Headquarters required feminists to stand for hours awaiting accreditation. Additionally, there were reports of racial discrimination, tokenism and ageism. Two other young feminists present at the event had this to say:
@presidentrania writes, “I was invited by UN Women to speak at the SG TownHall tomorrow morning to raise some important points about technology and gender equality in MENA but yet I don’t have a pass. Youth meaningful engagement is about giving us access to spaces and engaging us in the conversation.”
@vrushalikadam shares, “Accessibility for deaf young individuals is something that came on my radar at the Youth Forum, I hope we’re able to have the resources to be more inclusive next year. However, I was also reminded that this has been the case in actual #CSW67 side events as well.”
A feminist remarked that she was especially disappointed that most important sessions at CSW were only transmitted in English, which left many who were non-native speakers struggling to follow and unable to contribute to their full capacity.
Even at the digital CSW events, there were barriers hampering participation for persons with disabilities:
@LibbyHumphris states, “Ironic that the first event I tried to join in with had no live captioning. Showing that even events as big as #csw67 are still inaccessible to some women. I won’t give up raising awareness of accessibility, things need to change!”
Despite CSW’s stated goal to be a progressive space for intergenerational dialogue and partnership, older feminists often refuse to make space for younger feminists to speak up, or worse, make condescending remarks to young feminists, questioning our legitimacy in the space.
As a young feminist, I believe that events like CSW cannot be successful if they reproduce the same harmful power structures and access barriers that are already prevalent within a patriarchal society. Feminist spaces must be accessible and inclusive. Whether it relates to funding, logistics or accessibility, feminist spaces must demonstrate that it is not only the perspectives of the privileged that should contribute to policies.
It seems apparent that CSW has reached a point where there’s a divergence between the values exemplified in the space and those of the wider feminist movement. The young feminist movement of today is one that celebrates feminists in all of their diversity regardless of race, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Further, our movements prioritise accessibility at every step of the process to ensure that all voices are valued and meaningfully included.
My experience, and those of other young feminists at CSW67, therefore begs the question of whether CSW is positioning itself to stay relevant within an evolving feminist movement.
Why go to CSW?
After reading the recounts of the various missed opportunities and sometimes, outright failures at CSW, you may be asking yourself, why even bother? Why should young feminists take on the added financial burden, miss classes and midterms, stand in long lines for hours and tolerate discrimination?
To put it simply, it is our passion for our cause and our dedication to advancing the rights of women within our own regions and nations that drives us forward. It is our hope that through our advocacy and sacrifice, we may be able to transform these systems to be more inclusive, safe spaces for meaningful intergenerational dialogues, feminist knowledge and resource sharing.
CSW has the potential to be a transformative and powerful intergenerational convening. This energy is demonstrated in many of the civil society side events that take place throughout the two weeks. However, this potential cannot be fully realized if critical perspectives are left out, if accessibility remains an afterthought and if young feminists from around the globe do not feel welcomed and valued in the space.
For a more detailed account of the barriers to women’s participation at CSW this year, I’d encourage you to read this article by Lina AbiRafeh on her experience.
Sapphire Alexander (she/her) is an intersectional Caribbean feminist and the founder of Caribbean Feminist. In addition to her work at Caribbean Feminist she serves as an advisor for FRIDA, a Queen’s Commonwealth Trust Network member as well as a member of the young feminist coalition, Transform Education. Sapphire is passionate about women’s rights, intersectional feminism and social justice.