By Yasmina Benslimane, Harpreet Kaur Dhillon, Rubby Haji Naif, and Khesavi Ramen
Last month, feminist activists, youth advocates, civil society actors, government officials, policymakers, and other key stakeholders from around the world gathered in New York for the 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the UN’s largest annual convening on gender equality. Held in-person for the first time since 2019, this year’s CSW focused on digital rights and the role equal access to technology can play in achieving gender equality and empowering girls and women.
CSW is meant to serve as an opportunity for the global community to take stock of gender equality progress, gaps, and goals and drive concrete action to advance gender equality. Yet for the many youth activists that missed classes, work, and other obligations to represent their communities and concerns at this high-level gathering — including over a dozen Women Deliver Young Leaders and Alumni, like us — CSW fell short of the ideals it espouses.
One notable problem was lack of access. In panels and forums, decision makers held discussions on behalf of girls and women from the Global South, rural areas, and marginalized communities — yet human mobility restrictions, visa denials, lack of funding and resources, and other structural inequities prevented many of the girls and women in question from attending themselves. Those who were privileged enough to attend faced further hurdles upon arrival, such as lining up for up to five hours on the first day to receive their passes, with some even collapsing due to exhaustion. Then, for the next two weeks, young people were repeatedly treated as second-class citizens. While priority events were held during the week at the UN, the youth forum was relegated to a Saturday, took place outside of UN premises, and only allowed 200 participants — less than half the number of registered participants. The first-ever interactive youth dialogue, heralded as a “momentous milestone for youth representatives,” and the UN Secretary General’s town hall meeting with civil society — both crucial spaces for young people to raise their voices and concerns — were held at the same time and critically limited participation of youth in both spaces.
Meanwhile, the inclusion of youth in panels felt tokenistic and lacked diversity, with the same handful of prominent young activists speaking at every event while other voices went unheard. For instance, representation of refugee youth and their experiences was largely absent at CSW. At the youth forum, a speaker during one of the panels encouraged youth to talk to their government delegations to push for the inclusion of youth in policy discussions. Though well-intentioned, comments like this are not only insensitive to refugee youth but also marginalize the experiences of millions of youth from the Global South who have been excluded from their government due to oppression and corruption. Refugees and stateless persons often find themselves in situations where they are unable to access their home country’s representatives or are not recognized by their home country. This is a significant concern as it means that they may not have the same level of support that citizens have access to.
For many young people in the audience, the tokenism and exclusion at CSW reinforced a sense of powerlessness, low self-confidence, and imposter syndrome — particularly for first-time attendees who overcame many barriers to secure their spot and struggled with the lack of guidance from CSW organizers. Many felt that CSW’s claims to encourage youth participation ultimately rang hollow and that a concerted effort needs to be made next year to integrate youth before, during, and after CSW, perhaps by exploring more innovative avenues for engagement in addition to speaking opportunities.
Young activists have also shared alarming accounts of the rampant sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, and cruelty they faced this year in what is supposed to be the ultimate feminist safe space. Young people faced dismissive and condescending comments such as “I would give you my business card, but I am saving mine for more important people” and “How come you have a good accent in English when you look the way you do?” One young person was bullied by a government official after they made an intervention on gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health and rights in their country of origin. Lily Dong Li Rosengard, a young non-binary and queer activist, shared on Twitter that they were told that they are “immoral” and that their community is not guaranteed rights by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Activist and Women Deliver’s Youth Zone Consultant Zahra Al Hillaly wrote:
“[T]here’s no denying the power dynamics in rooms and the racism and discrimination many of us have faced from ‘supposed allies.’ This is my first in-person CSW and I am horrified by the experiences diverse youth have experienced. Do better.”
Young feminists came from all over the world and all walks of life to share their insights at CSW, bringing with them a whole array of skills, experiences, and cultural perspectives. They believed CSW was a safe space where their voices would be valued. Instead, they faced obstacles at every step of the process and were silenced, excluded, tokenized, discriminated against, and discredited. To promote true inclusion, it is crucial to ensure that the voices of marginalized young people are both respected and represented in all policy discussions, including those held at CSW.
Enough is enough. There is so much work to be done, but young people will not be quiet. We will continue to fight and speak up, not just during CSW, International Women’s Day, or Women’s History Month, but every day. While those in power tell us it will take an additional 300 years to achieve gender equality, we demand change now — and that change starts on the inside. We must interrogate and dismantle the elitist, hypocritical, and patriarchal systems that are currently in place so that CSW can live up to its promise for a more inclusive, accessible, and equitable world.