CSW-65 and COVID-19: It's time to have women at the table

Barbara Van Passen, Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity

Meanwhile, “manels” – all-male “expert” panels – remain ubiquitous in coronatime, and surveys by civil society organisations, such as Care’s recent report “Where Are the Women?”, show that “Local women’s rights and women-led organizations and leaders are not being included in decision making around the humanitarian response, or receiving their fair share of funding.” In contexts such as these, it is hardly surprising that we are not seeing the gender-sensitive COVID-19 responses that women’s groups and movements have been calling for – let alone truly transformative ones.

At the same time, we know that women around the world are on the pandemic frontlines, supporting their families and communities. As a recent ActionAid report detailed, organisations that promote women-led localised emergency responses are particularly good at addressing the needs of all those affected, while at the same time strengthening skills and transforming gender relations. It has also been widely observed that coronavirus responses in many of the countries led by women have highly effective, and more likely to have taken women’s particular needs into account.

If you want to include more women, learn from women how to do so

It’s a no-brainer that debates and decision-making that exclude half of the population – or any part of it, for that matter – are not only unjust, but also result in half-baked solutions. Indeed, few people would argue the point – and yet, on the eve of CSW65, we are still very far from having enough women at the table. Luckily, we know much of what needs to be done to include all women in informing, shaping – and taking – key decisions, and feminist groups and women’s rights organisations around the world have been showing the way.  

For starters, we need better data on gender equality in all spheres of life, and we need women involved in that effort. The fact that we simply don’t know what is currently happening to women’s participation in decision-making is especially concerning. In both studies I did, we found that lack of gender-differentiated intersectional data and women’s voices in research were major obstacles for achieving gender equality. But we also know that when women are included in design, data gathering and analysis, research can be truly transformational.

The main challenge is making participation and decision-making truly full and meaningful for women in all their diversity. Both studies showed that exclusion from policy processes is particularly pronounced for women from rural areas, indigenous or migrant backgrounds; encouragingingly, however, many civil society organisations and movements have become increasingly successful in including and supporting these groups. Access to information and safe spaces for women to share their experiences, to do joint (power) analysis and to organise themselves, are really important enablers. This also means that we must be intentional about language, (digital) security, timings of meetings that work for women and their particular roles – e.g. as caregivers or farmers – and other practical barriers women face, as well as ensuring their visibility (hence the need to end manels). There is a wealth of evidence to show that if we want to make sure women can truly participate meaningfully, engaging men in challenging deep-rooted social stereotypes and adopting quotas are both key.

How to be in the room – when you can’t be in the room

While the insights, lived experience and determination of women’s movements and organisations around the world give cause for hope, it is also true that many groups and individuals are at increasing risk from growing repression, lack of funding and the additional challenges presented by the pandemic. Without having a physical presence in decision-making spaces, or even just in the corridors and hallways that lead to the tables where decision-makers sit, women’s groups, now more than ever, need support from allies across the globe and opportunities to have meaningful online participation.

Civil society organisations are actively calling for this support. A recent letter from 70+ women’s organisations to the chair of the CSW65 negotiations has emphasised the opportunity it presents to reverse course by developing new best practices to place feminist and gender justice organisations at the centre of the collective work. For a look at how this could happen, last year’s “open call for strong and inclusive civil society engagement at UN virtual forums” made by 350 organisations has some valuable and timely suggestions. I also hope that many more women and girls will have the opportunity to be part of the actual negotiations, as I saw first-hand what a difference it can make.

As we look to the post-COVID-19 future – for people of all genders, age and colour – the stakes are high. So far, despite our hopes for using the pandemic’s “critical juncture” to achieve more transformative change, it has failed to materialise. Instead, the very power structures and patriarchy that characterise most of our societies have persisted, if not intensified, over the past year. CSW65 will be an important opportunity to move beyond rhetoric and finally show the placing of “women at the table” to be the game-changer we know it can be.

We need to start, then with the “full and effective participation of women in all their diversity” within these very negotiations, so that they can share and discuss the solutions and alternatives that have been working for them. It is our very best bet for real and lasting change.

Read the full reports referenced in this article:

Women 2030 Global Shadow report: Gender equality on the ground. Feminist findings and recommendations for achieving Agenda 2030 (June 2020), by Barbara van Paassen for Women 2030. Commissioned by Women Engage for a Common Future and Women2030 partners.

The gendered impacts of large scale land investments and women’s responses (May 2020), by Magdalena Kropniwicka and Barbara van Paassen. Commissioned by Trocaire.


Barbara van Paassen is an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity, and an advocate and independent consultant who supports change-makers in their work for social justice, drawing on her own experience in policy-making, research, and advocacy and campaigning. From 2011 to 2018, Barbara worked at ActionAid in the Netherlands, first as policy advisor on land and women’s rights and later as head of policy and campaigns. She now lives in Milan, Italy, where she works with civil society organisations, foundations and social movements around the world on research and strategy development to tackle injustice and inequality. She tweets at @bvpaassen

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

CSW-65 and COVID-19: It's time to have women at the table

This blog post was previously published on the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity website

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