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Peers play key role for UK at CSW63 at the United Nations

From 11 to 15 March 2019, the UK Parliament was represented at the 63rd session of the Commission of the Status of Women (CSW 63) at the UN in New York by Baroness Hodgson, Baroness Gale and Baroness Watkins frim the UK House of Lords. This year’s first week of CSW coincided with vital votes on Brexit, so no MPs were able to attend.  The 63rd session had the priority theme of “Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls”.

The week started with an opening speech by the Presdient of the Bureau of the Commission, H.E. Geraldine Byrne Nason, and the UN Secretary General, both great champions of gender equality. It was very moving to hear the Secretary General say that “For millennia, women have been systematically marginalized, ignored and silenced, in a male dominated world with a male dominated culture” and he continued by highlighting the fact that at the moment there is a pushback on women’s rights, a pushback that is “pervasive and relentless”.

After the opening ceremony our day continued with a meeting with H.E. Karen Pierce, the first woman Ambassador that the UK has appointed to the UN. She is, of course, a great champion of women’s rights and a wonderful role model of a women in a leadership position. We discussed issues including universal healthcare, gender parity within the UN Secretariat and how the issues raised at CSW could be best pursued in the UK following our return.  As in previous years the UK Mission very kindly held a reception for many of us attending CSW from the UK – this year it was on the Monday at lunchtime. This was a change from the normal Tuesday evening slot, but it enabled us to meet others attending early in the week and provided an opportunity to hear further from the UK’s Permanent Representative.

One of the frustrations of CSW is that there are so many interesting meetings to go to that it is hard to choose. Not only do state and regional Parliaments and Governments run events but also thousands of NGOs that attend, and between us we tried to cover as many events as possible. Among other things, we attended a roundtable with young women from the UK where we talked about our roles, answered questions and listened to their very thoughtful youth statement; we met with those running the Peace & Security team at UN Women, to hear about the set of priorities that they had developed and the work they were undertaking in the conflict zones of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Kenya; we attended one of the UK events run in partnership with Denmark on healthy, happy and safe relationships for young people. All of us Parliamentarians also participated and spoke at meetings throughout the week. One of the highlights for me of this year’s CSW was speaking at the GAPS (Gender Action for Peace and Security) meeting. I am the Chair of their Advisors, and this was the first meeting that they had held at CSW.

This year we had the honour of having HRH the Countess of Wessex at CSW for the first three days. She has expressed a commitment to supporting the women, peace and security agenda as well as the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative. Lord (Tariq) Ahmad, the Foreign Office Minister in the Lords and also the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the UN and the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion and Belief was also present for the first few days. He hosted a Commonwealth Reception at which we heard from Visaka Dharmadasa from Sri Lanka, the mother of a missing soldier who went to meet the Tamil Tiger commanders and helped broker peace there.

The IPU day this year was entitled “Investing in gender equality: Parliaments ensuring social protection, public services and infrastructure deliver for women”. The morning focussed on “What do gender-responsive social protection policies look like”. After hearing the speakers, it was fascinating to listen to the questions from parliamentarians from very different parts of the world including Korea, Iceland, Sudan, Niger, Togo, El Salvador, to name but a few. I also made an intervention to highlight the UK’s excellent welfare system but to flag the difficulties that older women face here when they need long term care.

I am always struck by how lucky we, in the UK, are that CSW is so well supported by our Government. Charles Ramsden and Hilary Spencer led the team for the Government Equalities Office and I know that much time had been spent liaising with the NGOs prior to reaching New York. Every evening Charles chaired a meeting at the UK Mission so that all of us attending from the UK could hear about what had been happening during the day. Special mention must be made of Aaron Holtz who is our chief negotiator at CSW from the UK Mission – we are so grateful to him for all his hard work in ensuring that the wording on women’s rights from the Beijing Platform for Action is not allowed to roll backwards. He puts in long hours on our behalf!

Attending CSW is always a wonderful and inspiring experience, and I would like to thank BGIPU for sending me again this year. I give special thanks to Emily Davies who, as ever, looked after us so well during the week in New York, and wish her very well in her new job – she will be much missed.

Baroness Hodgson of Abinger CBE