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2017 OSCE Gender Equality Review Conference
Wednesday, July 19, 2017

By Janice Helwig,
Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE

The OSCE held its second Gender Equality Review Conference in Vienna on June 12-13, 2017. The meeting was not a traditional review conference;  it did not systematically evaluate how OSCE participating States are doing in implementing their commitments, but rather offered a framework for an exchange of information and best practices among governments, international organizations, and NGOs.

Austrian Federal Minister for Families and Youth Sophie Karmasin opened the conference, followed by a video address from the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau. The conference was also addressed by the Special Representative of the OSCE Chairmanship-in-Office on Gender Issues Ambassador Melanne Verveer.

The conference was held in a non-traditional format for the OSCE, which usually holds meetings with government delegates speaking from behind their country’s nameplate. It comprised concurrent panel discussions viewed by an audience, followed by a question and answer session. Panelists came from governments, the OSCE Institutions and field missions, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the European Union, the United Nations, and civil society.

Panelists discussed women’s participation in the security sector; women’s participation in political and public life; equal economic opportunities for women; combating violence against women; strengthening institutional mechanisms; and emerging issues and ways forward. Issues raised included the disproportionately low number of women in political decision-making positions or in military, security, and conflict management roles; the pay gap between women and men for similar work; discrimination and harassment, including of minority women; and the vulnerability of women and girls to trafficking and sexual abuse.  

Recommendations for areas that need more attention included improving access to and the quality of education for girls; alleviating poverty and other situations that make girls more vulnerable to trafficking and sexual exploitation; doing more to better prevent violence against women; promoting women’s participation in conflict management, mediation, and peace processes; closing the pay gap; focusing on the role of women in perpetrating or countering violent extremism and terrorism; and the need to gather more sex-disaggregated data and research to develop the most effective programs to address these issues.

Several speakers also discussed OSCE efforts to promote equal opportunities for women inside the Organization, as well as to incorporate a gender perspective in its work. They noted that the OSCE has established a network of Gender Focal Points throughout all OSCE structures; raised the percentage of women working in the Organization from 35 percent in 2004 to 49 percent today; increased gender components in OSCE projects; and stepped up assistance to participating States in implementing their gender-related commitments. They recommended that the OSCE strive to increase the number of women appointed to senior level positions, provide more coaching on gender issues for OSCE management, develop a mechanism to more systematically incorporate a gender perspective in all OSCE projects and activities, ensure no all-male panels at OSCE events, and update the 2004 Action Plan for the Promotion of Gender Equality.

OSCE Commitments Related to Equal Rights of Women and Men

In the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, participating States committed themselves to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms (...) for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.” This general commitment was followed by the 1983 Madrid Document commitment to ensure equal rights of men and women, which was reiterated in the 1989 Vienna Document.

Commitments relating to women were expanded significantly in the 1991 Moscow Document, addressing issues including available international instruments, strengthening national policies and assessing their impact on women, ensuring full economic opportunity for women and non-discrimination in employment, promoting equal access to education, eliminating violence against women, ensuring equal opportunities for women’s participation in political and public life, and collecting data to assess the situation of women.

The 1999 Istanbul Charter for European Security reiterated commitments on equal rights of men and women and the importance of eliminating violence against women. The 2003 Maastricht Ministerial addressed the need for greater gender balance within the OSCE itself.

Several OSCE Ministerial Meetings have adopted specific decisions concerning women: the 2001 Bucharest Ministerial adopted a decision on the Prevention of Violence against Women; the 2004 Sofia Ministerial adopted a decision endorsing the 2004 Action Plan for the Promotion of Gender Equality; the 2005 Ljubljana Ministerial adopted a decision on Women in Conflict Prevention, Crisis Management, and Post-Conflict Rehabilitation; the 2009 Athens Ministerial adopted a decision on Women’s Participation in Political and Public Life; the 2011 Vilnius Ministerial adopted a decision on Promoting Equal Opportunities for Women in the Economic Sphere; and the 2014 Basel Ministerial adopted a decision on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women.

The Permanent Council adopted an Action Plan for Gender Issues in 2000 and an Action Plan for the Promotion of Gender Equality in 2004, both of which identified best practices for participating States as well as internal OSCE actions for increasing women’s employment in the Organization, as well as for developing training programs and preventing harassment and discrimination.

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