Gender agenda in BRICS countries - reflections from a side event at CSW61 in New York

31.05.2017

Commission on the Status of Women is a UN-based annual platform which brings together representatives of civil society, government, academics and experts on women's rights to discuss the most pressing issues pertaining gender equality and women's rights in various countries in the world. 

The Commission on the Status of Women provides a unique opportunity for representatives from WROs and activists working to promote the rights of women around the world to come together to discuss issues, share experience and knowledge, and make plans for future interventions. Civil society actors gather and spend time discussing issues in a variety of formats from very formal to very informal, learn new information, gain new perspective and their increase knowledge on topics they are already familiar with, and teach others things they know. In this way, it is a forum for experience exchange and transfer of ideas. 

Although the representation from CSOs at CSW61 was quite diverse, it is evident that many barriers exist preventing individuals from participating who potentially have a lot to bring to the conversation and who could benefit from the knowledge sharing. First of all, travel restrictions inhibit participants from several countries from attending. Secondly, this event is accessible to representatives connected to international organizations or who are well-funded and therefore have the resources to send representatives to attend. Due to this, there was a clear lack of participants who are influencers in their communities on women’s rights and women’s empowerment but who come from certain countries - especially less affluent countries - who are from certain social milieu and who are less well-connected. 

Considering that the focus of CSW61 was on the economic empowerment of women, the bulk of the side events and parallel sessions were devoted to unpacking about various issues relating to different aspects of women and work. The panelists ranged from government officials to leaders of community initiatives to academics. They spoke on measures that have been developed in different countries to solve issues relating to women’s full participation in the economy. They shared personal experiences on barriers and challenges and how they overcame these challenges. They assessed the impact of initiatives and presented research. Several of the sessions were quite thought-provoking and offered realistic innovations to helping develop women’s ability to participate in and benefit from the economy, and some even addressed women’s role in shaping the economy on both local and global levels. 

One of the parallel session of note was organized by the BRICS Feminist Watch, a new initiative to promote women’s rights in BRICS countries and beyond. The session devoted to discussing BRICS and women’s economic situations was entitled Emerging Economies and Women's Economic Empowerment: Feminist Analysis from BRICS. BRICS as a unit posits itself as a “new world order” and an “alternative” to the existing structures and alliances. The session discussed this alliance, the New Development Bank (NDB), which is the BRICS’ relatively new lending bank, and areas of concern for civil society and women in particular in BRICS countries. 

The panelists started off with an informative overview on BRICS countries: demography, wealth, and other statistical information to give a broad understanding of the differences and similarities between the five countries. Of particular note is that while there is improvement overall in the gender gap, women are not as involved in the labor market as men overall, with the biggest discrepancy being India. 

Further there were presentations on India and China’s role in and view of BRICS. 

While an emerging global leader, China remains reluctant to take up this role fully. This is in part due to the issue that China’s economic growth has not been matched by leadership growth. Moreover, as mentioned by the panelist, China does not want to be held responsible for the same things as developing countries. China is ambiguous about globalization yet does not want to distance self from south regional allies. Therefore it is unclear what impact and role China will play within the BRICS and the NDB, though as of now it has shown engagement and varying levels of leadership. 

The discussion regarding India was quite different, focusing on cooperation and sustainability. India champions horizontal south-south cooperation as a response to the gap in donors to south after financial crisis, but the panelist highlighted the need for regulations to meet the needs of the most marginalized. The importance of women gaining access to energy, new technology, and productive assets (housing, land) is of great significance in India. At the same time, the role of women in peacebuilding and peacekeeping in the context of India and beyond was mentioned as an important issue for India.   

While it is true that a positive outcome of BRICS and the NDB in general is the strengthening the global south, there are great fears – and rightfully so – from civil society and others that in practice they appear to be a reproduction of the existing world structures: an outdated male-led agenda is embedded in BRICS and that the goal in fact is the exploration of capitalization as much as possible with short-term gains through exploitation and commodization although it is masked with the attractive branding that the NDB prioritizes “renewable development projects.” 

There are many challenges that were brought up during the presentations and in the discussion that followed. Firstly, the question on how to build knowledge analysis from the south was raised. The south has unique understanding, perspective, and knowledge that must be valued and stimulated to flourish and grow. Additionally, the contradictions within BRICS countries themselves and the fact that BRICS as an alliance is disjointed and not taken seriously make it questionable about the true impact of the alliance. Therefore it is believed that the NDB will be more impacting within the BRICS countries than the BRICS association itself. 

Furthermore, the session addressed potential ways the New Development Bank (NDB) will impact women in communities that receive loans – particularly BRICS countries themselves. A holistic approach to women’s economic empowerment is needed from the beginning, not as an afterthought. Especially when the projects of the NDB are considered, it is crucial that this is addressed from the outset: if infrastructure jobs are traditionally for men while social service jobs are for women, how can governments make job growth equitable? Therefore it is of great importance to monitor the policies and regulations that are taken among the BRICS countries and the NDB to ensure that any impact that they do indeed have will be feminist.

In closing, it is tremendously important for civil society members to participate in CSW and similar international events for a multitude of reasons. Such fora require participation from civil society and activists in order to be legitimate because they discuss the issues that the most marginalized face. It is greatly important for these “common citizens” to have the opportunity to meet with government officials, academics, businesspeople, and others to relay information and be part of the processes. Additionally, participants  gain energy and inspiration and are recharged with ideas from such events and the events give them the chance to network to so they may continue their work back in their local communities with better results. Therefore, such events must work towards greater inclusion, especially of the most marginalized, so that they too may benefit and be agents of change in their local settings.

The contemporary global situation is marked by continued globalization while fragmentation - moving towards isolationism – makes collaboration more challenging. Therefore such international events as CSW that allow for honest and open conversation are crucial for current issues to be discussed and solutions to be shared. 

Photo: UN Women, http://www.unwomen.org/en/csw/csw61-2017 

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