social justice


  • ‘Even the most progressive UN agencies have become vulnerable to the threat of corporate capture; fortunately, there are precedents of the UN tackling this kind of challenge’

    As the2017 State of Civil Society Report identified, private sector influence on international governance is an increasing civil society concern. CIVICUS speaks on this issue withThea Gelbspan, Membership and Solidarity Director atESCR-Net – the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.ESCR-Net is acollaborative initiative of groups- grassroots organisations, social movements, civil society organisations and academic centres -as well as individuals from around the world working to secure economic and social justice through human rights.With over 280 members in 75 countries,ESCR-Net seeks to strengthen all human rights,with an emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights, and further develop the tools for achieving their promotion, protection and fulfilment.ESCR-Net members engage in mutual learning and exchange, deepen solidarity, enter into collaborations and join collective work in efforts to build a global movement to make human rights and social justice a reality for all.

    1. What are the current major trends in private sector partnerships with the United Nations system, particularly with regards to Agenda 2030?

    All agencies and offices of the United Nations (UN) are subject to frameworks that the UN system adopts and operates under, including the last of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), SDG 17, to revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development. That goal clearly states that its “sustainable development agenda requires partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society.” Moreover, it cites an urgent need for action to “unlock the transformative power of trillions of dollars of private resources.” Through Goal 17, the UN system has, regrettably, enshrined a mandate for its various agencies and operations to explore partnerships with companies and private investors. The UN Secretary-General's Guidelines for a Principle-Based Approach to Cooperation between the United Nations and the Business Sector, adopted in 2000, also detail the UN’s internal rules and procedures and have provided further guidance that directs this trend.

    In the face of these developments, ESCR-Net members have expressed a growing concern about what they have termed the corporate capture of UN processes and institutions. Corporate capture refers to the means by which an economic elite undermines the realisation of our human rights and our environment by exerting undue influence over decision-makers and public institutions, in domestic and international spheres. Softening regulations, weakening regulatory powers, bankrolling elections, utilising state security services against local communities, causing judicial interference and implementing revolving-door employment practices are just some of the instances of corporate capture that ESCR-Net members have tracked.

    We are concerned that even the most progressive UN agencies and offices have become vulnerable to the threat of corporate capture. For example, on 16 May 2017 the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) announced a new five-year partnership with Microsoft, consisting of a US$5 million grant, plus a commitment of pro-bono assistance to the OHCHR. After an exchange between the ESCR-Net Secretariat and the OHCHR, on 17 October 2017 the members of ESCR-Net’s Corporate Accountability Working Group sent a letter to raise concern regarding the actual or perceived effect that this partnership will have on the OHCHR’s independence.

    2. What do you think is motivating partnerships, both from the private sector and UN viewpoints?

    The UN Charter establishes that its member states are fiscally responsible for UN activity expenses(Chapter IV, article 17.2).Yet, as many UN member states fail to fulfil their obligations in terms of member dues and the overall financing of agreed-upon priority activities, a worrying gap has emerged that the private sector is now seeking to fill. Similarly, in the face of a substantial crisis in terms of public development financing, we have witnessed the whole-hearted embrace of public-private partnerships across the UN system, with a notable deficit in terms of critical assessments of this model.

    3. What are the implications of this on the space for civil society participation at the international and local levels?

    Human rights defenders (HRDs) play a critical role in identifying, mitigating, exposing and ensuring accountability for the adverse human rights and environmental impacts associated with some corporate activity and development projects. Yet all too often, governments have criminalised legitimate activity to defend and promote human rights and corporate accountability. We have witnessed a series of attacks, harassment, restrictions, intimidation, reprisals (including arbitrary arrest and detention), disappearances, judicial harassment, torture and killings of HRDs confronting human rights abuses that derive from private sector activity. Too often the application of restrictive or vague laws - such as those relating to national security, counter-terrorism, and defamation - inhibit the work of HRDs at the behest of private sector interests. Business actors also have been known to interfere with access to information and communication, financial freedom and trade union activities undertaken by HRDs.

    Unfortunately, as the UN system has forged more and more partnerships with private sector interests, the ability of its human rights mechanisms to uphold universally recognised standards effectively with actors who do not believe that such standards apply to them could be compromised, as could the system’s ability to provide protection for HRDs at risk.

    To counter these trends, ESCR-Net members have called on states to recognise and support the leadership and contributions made by communities affected by business-related abuses and generate sustainable economic and development models that align with human rights and minimise environmental impacts. In order to create an enabling environment for the defence of economic, social and cultural rights, states must mandate human rights and environmental due diligence, including project assessment, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and ensure the rights of people affected, or potentially affected, by corporate activity to participate actively, freely and meaningfully in those processes.

    4. What can be done in the face of these challenges?

    I think that a challenge of this magnitude truly requires collective efforts - across borders and regions - to confront these trends and elevate alternative approaches to advancing sustainable development that promote an environment that is friendly to human rights and those who defend those rights.

    This model of work can prove to be quite effective. For example, the ESCR-Net Corporate Accountability Working Group (CAWG) was central to the advocacy that led to the UN Human Rights Council’s creation of an Open-Ended Intergovernmental Working Group on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises(IGWG) to begin drafting a binding treaty on transnational corporations and human rights. As part of this work, CAWG participants in three regional consultations and strategy meetings repeatedly raised the issue of corporate capture, as well as the possibility of using the UN process, and the international attention it attracts, to confront this trend at the national level.

    Now, as the negotiations within the IGWG have progressed, ESCR-Net members are calling attention to the risk of corporate capture of the binding treaty process itself and advocating for clear lines to be respected in terms of private sector participation.

    This is not the first time the UN system has grappled with the threat of undue influence that corporations or industry sectors may exert over the very treaties or bodies that are supposed to regulate corporate practices. The World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control contains an explicit recognition that establishes the tobacco industry’s irreconcilable conflict of interest in public health matters. Its article 5.3 states: “In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.” Accordingly, precedents exist. We can insist on clear lines that keep private sector interests out of spaces that are not appropriate for their participation.

    In any accord, human rights are clear, universally accepted and non-negotiable standards that imply clear obligations for states and, progressively, responsibilities for non-state actors including those from the private sector. ESCR-Net understands human rights to transcend the UN system and the purview of law, being derived, essentially, from long legacies of struggles by social movements and communities for a life of dignity. We must stand together to support these values that we share, in the face of ongoing efforts to turn public affairs over to market forces. Together with CIVICUS and other important civil society networks, ESCR-Net envisions a world where all people can enjoy human rights and social justice.

    Get in touch with ESCR-Net through their websiteor Facebookpage, or follow @ESCRNet on Twitter.


  • BULGARIA: ‘Women’s rights organisations are working together towards the goal of a feminist Europe’

    Iliana BalabanovaCIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and Bulgarian civil society’s role in eliminating gender-based violence (GBV) with Iliana Balabanova, founder and president of the Bulgarian Platform of the European Women’s Lobby (BPEWL). 

    BPEWL was founded in 2005 by a group of civil society organisations (CSOs) working for gender equality and social justice, and against violence towards women. Since its inception it has organised at the community level to raise gender issues and push them up the agenda, promoted petitions, organised workshops, implemented projects and collaborated with civil society in other European countries on joint advocacy initiatives against gender inequality.

    How has the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated GBV in Bulgaria?

    As reported by civil society, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a significant increase in violence against women and children. One of the main challenges in preventing violence has been the lack of a coordinating body bringing together both government and civil society. There is need for much better coordination among all institutions to review cases of violence and identify the best ways to deal with them.

    According to the office of the World Health Organization in Bulgaria, at least seven women lost their lives at the hands of a partner or family member since pandemic-related confinement measures were put in place. The national helpline for children received 80 reports of a parent abusing another parent in March 2020 alone. This indicated that violence against women and children doubled compared to the months before the pandemic.

    The pandemic impacted very negatively on the work of the centres that provide assistance to GBV victims. The impact was dramatic on victims of domestic violence and rape in need of emergency support. Assistance had to be provided exclusively through the phone, while phone calls for consultations increased by 30 per cent.

    In addition, the interaction with public institutions – judicial, health and municipal bodies – was difficult. And the pandemic had a negative effect on the justice system, as it delayed court decisions. During lockdown periods, applications for protection orders in domestic violence cases were submitted by mail to the regional or district courts, and most other applications could not be sent due to the huge backlog.

    What role has Bulgarian civil society historically played, and continues to play, to tackle GBV?

    Bulgarian women’s organisations have worked against GBV and domestic violence for decades. At the very beginning, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we started to work on domestic violence by counselling victims and we opened the first shelters for victims of domestic violence in Bulgaria.

    At that time there was no legislation to prevent domestic violence or protect victims, and Bulgarian women’s CSOs – joined later by other human rights CSOs – drafted the first such bill. The lobbying campaign and the advocacy work to get the bill passed lasted almost five years. 

    Thanks to this work, in 2005 the Bulgarian parliament passed the Law for Protection against Domestic Violence, which defined domestic violence quite widely, encompassing all forms of violence – physical, sexual, psychological, emotional and economic – committed by family members or partners in a formal or de facto relationship or cohabitation. The process was hurried by the fact that Bulgaria had started harmonising its legislation with European Union (EU) regulations, and women’s CSOs took advantage of the momentum to exert pressure for a new legislative framework to protect women from domestic violence.

    By then the Bulgarian women’s movement had gained enough experience, knowledge and expertise, and we started to work to change societal attitudes and create an understanding of domestic violence as an expression of unequal power relations at the personal, community and societal levels. We tried to shine a light on the link between social domination, economic control, power inequalities, stereotypes and GBV. The BPEWL and its member organisations have worked on disrupting the continuum of violence against women and girls ever since.

    After 2011, one of our main goals was to get the Bulgarian state to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence – the Istanbul Convention. Unfortunately, mostly because of the rise of populist, nationalist and transphobic politics, Bulgaria rejected the Istanbul Convention. Moreover, in 2018 the Bulgarian Constitutional Court ruled that the concepts of gender and gender identity were irrelevant for the Bulgarian constitutional and legal system. They said they have no clear and precise legal content and would have dangerous legal consequences.

    As a result of this decision, Bulgaria does not keep official statistics on domestic violence and other forms of GBV. The number of complaints registered by the police and cases submitted to the courts are not counted in publicly available statistics. Murder, the most serious form of intrusion against a person, is also not captured through a gender-specific lens – that is, as femicide. So it fell on civil society to do this work, and so far information on GBV has been gathered by CSOs and some social agencies.

    According to this data, one in three women in Bulgaria are subjected to GBV and approximately one million women experience domestic violence. According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, every two weeks a woman is killed in Bulgaria, a third of whom have been subjected to systematic violence by their murderer, and a tenth of whom have sought police protection against their murderer. Civil society reported that between 2014 and 2017, over 5,500 women sought protection from women’s CSOs providing victim services and over 700 women and their children were placed in crisis centres.

    As I mentioned, during the pandemic domestic violence increased. Worryingly, however, the number and capacity of shelters remained very limited, and no progress was achieved in systematically collecting and analysing statistical data on GBV, including registering femicides. So women’s CSOs continue to lobby for the government to increase the number and capacity of state-funded crisis centres and other services, provide adequate support for CSOs offering shelter and care to victims, collect administrative data on all forms of GBV and ratify the Istanbul Convention.

    How is the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) working at the regional level?

    The EWL is the largest European women’s rights network, involving more than 2,000 organisations throughout Europe. It brings together the European women’s movement to influence the public and European institutions to support women’s human rights and gender equality. The Bulgarian Platform became a member of the EWL in 2005 and ever since we have worked together with member organisations at both national and EU levels. Our vision is that of a society in which women’s contributions are recognised, rewarded and celebrated, and in which all women have self-confidence, freedom of choice and freedom from violence and exploitation.

    The EWL works towards the goal of a feminist Europe. In a policy brief published in April 2020, ‘Women Must Not Pay the Price for COVID-19!’, we called on governments to put gender equality at the heart of their response. We call for a universal social care system with infrastructure to provide social and quality care services that are accessible and affordable for all women and girls.

    The 2022-2026 EWL strategy was developed during the pandemic, as all aspects of our work and our mission were being impacted on significantly. Over the course of this period, the EWL adapted to the restrictions brought about by the pandemic, sharpened its actions in a radically changed world and enabled online spaces for the women’s movement to come together, analyse and strategise about the significant and long-term impacts of this crisis, which will surely be shouldered disproportionately by women and girls.

    What are your plans for International Women’s Day? 

    This year’s International Women’s Day in Bulgaria will be focused on peace. We are working on providing support to women and girl refugees coming from conflict areas in Ukraine.

    Civic space in Bulgaria is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Bulgarian platform of the European Women’s Lobby through itswebsite or itsFacebook page.


  • PAKISTAN: ‘As a result of patriarchal norms, women experience discrimination at all levels’

    Farrah NazCIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and Pakistani civil society’s role in eliminating inequality and malnutrition with Farrah Naz, country director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). 

    GAIN is a Swiss-based foundation launched at the United Nations in 2002 to tackle the human suffering caused by malnutrition. It works with governments, businesses and civil society to transform food systems so that they deliver more nutritious foods for all people, especially the most vulnerable including children, adolescents and women.

    How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected women and girls in Pakistan?

    There is little evidence of how COVID-19 has affected women in Pakistan, but this is a country where the gender gap is huge – the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Pakistan 151 out of 153 countries – and there is a general understanding that in the presence of such gaps, disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic have a potential to have a disproportionate negative effect on women and girls.

    A situation analysis by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems pointed out that women make up 70 per cent of frontline health workers, who are more susceptible to contracting the virus. Similarly, women are a large part of the informal labour force, including domestic and home-based workers (HBWs), 75 per cent of whom were estimated to have suffered economic impacts due to loss of work. Women in the garment and textile industry also lost work due to lockdowns. Due to lack of registration, less than one per cent of women who run micro, small and medium food-related enterprises in the informal sector had access to financial support as their businesses were affected by lockdowns.

    A recent report shows that there are 12 million HBWs who earn around 3,000-4,000 rupees a month (approx. US$17-22), who will face multidimensional challenges including income insecurity, lack of social protection and increased vulnerability in times of crisis. It also indicates that as of 2017, 26 per cent of all microfinance loans had been taken out by women. The pandemic may affect their ability to pay them back, which could result in higher interest rates, penalties and reduced access to future loans.

    In the context of school closures, girls have generally been given more household responsibilities than boys. Prolonged closures could exacerbate inequalities in educational attainment due to higher rates of female absenteeism and lower rates of school completion. As schools reopen, many girls will find it difficult to balance schoolwork and increased domestic responsibilities.

    The Sustainable Social Development Organization, a CSO based in Islamabad, reported a 200 per cent increase in domestic violence cases in Pakistan in the early days of the pandemic. A 25 per cent increase in domestic violence was reported in eastern Punjab, while 500 domestic violence cases were reported in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province after the lockdown. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 399 murder cases were reported in March 2020 alone. In the federal capital, Islamabad, there were thousands of allegations of torture of women, but the National Commission on the Status of Women has remained silent on this.

    There is not enough safe and nutritious food and access to routine health services is limited. Pregnant women and children from vulnerable sectors have been severely affected and it is estimated that about 150,000 additional children across Punjab will be malnourished due to the pandemic.

    As usual, although women actively participate in harvesting food and have the primary responsibility for cooking meals, they often eat last and least, after male family members have been served. This is because social norms don’t value them equally and their interests are not prioritised.

    On top of this, the Ehsaas Ration Programme, which provides a subsidy that can be used to purchase staples such as flour and cooking oil, requires beneficiaries to have a national identity card, which women are much less likely to have than men. Across Pakistan, at least 12 million fewer women than men have such cards.

    How has civil society responded to these challenges?

    Civil society had tried to increase its humanitarian interventions to address not only pandemic-related health and safety issues but also the practical needs of vulnerable populations in terms of access to basic food and non-food items. Major networks of international and national organisations, governmental and civil society, have worked together to reach millions of people during the pandemic. Many CSOs focused on the needs of women, girls and transgender people.

    Many CSOs also concentrated their efforts on addressing domestic violence. While there have always been domestic violence helplines, new ones quickly emerged. And many in the private sector focused specifically on providing counselling services to address the mental health issues that people faced during extended lockdowns. 

    How has GAIN responded to the impacts of COVID-19 in local communities in Pakistan?

    In line with its mission of ensuring access to nutritious food, especially to the most vulnerable people, GAIN focused on keeping food markets working. Our work had several components.

    First, we worked with food-related small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that were struggling to survive, and especially with those that were owned or led by women, and provided small survival grants to selected SMEs.

    Second, we provided grants to enable employers in the food industry to support workers’ health and nutrition through emergency food support. Twenty thousand food workers and their families benefitted through this programme in Pakistan – and many more in other low- and middle-income countries where we work.

    Third, we cooperated with social protection programmes to ensure that food and ration distribution include fortified staple foods for the most vulnerable families and individuals dependent on food and ration distribution networks. Over 8 million meals were fortified in six districts across Pakistan. 

    Fourth, we worked with urban food system stakeholders and traditional markets in urban areas to ensure that safe and nutritional foods remained available and accessible to people. We addressed issues of food safety in markets and for consumers through awareness campaigns and the distribution of masks and sanitisers, and helped design policy options to increase the resilience of the food system. We implemented this programme in two cities of Pakistan. 

    What are the main women’s rights issues in Pakistan, and how is civil society working to bring them into the policy agenda?

    A lot of progress on women’s rights has been made over the years, but the status of women continues to vary considerably across classes, regions and the rural/urban divide, due to uneven socioeconomic development and the impact of tribal and feudal social formations on women’s lives.

    Overall, improvements are spreading through Pakistan: for instance, an increasing number of women are literate and educated. CSOs and religious groups are increasingly denouncing violence against women. The All-Pakistan Ulema Council, which is the largest group of religious clergies in Pakistan, has issued a fatwa – that is, a legal ruling – against so-called ‘honour killings’. Courts have answered the call by women’s rights advocates and are delivering harsher punishments for violent crimes against women.

    Pakistan has adopted several key international commitments to gender equality and women’s human rights – including the Beijing Platform for Action, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Sustainable Development Goals. Some domestic laws have also been enacted to protect the rights of women.

    However, gender inequality remains a prominent issue, as revealed by most development indicators. Child marriage is high: 21 per cent of girls under 18 are already married. Limited access to education heavily impacts on Pakistani children, especially girls.

    Women from the lower classes are often only able to work informally from home: 12 out of the estimated 20 million HBWs in Pakistan are women. Women are estimated to account for 65 per cent of the contribution of HBWs to Pakistan’s economy, but most receive low wages and are denied legal protection and social security.

    The CSO White Ribbon Pakistan reported that between 2004 and 2016, 47,034 women faced sexual violence and there were over 15,000 registered ‘honour crimes’. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Index Report ranks Pakistan second to last regarding domestic violence rates. But at 2.5 per cent, conviction rates for these crimes are exceedingly low.

    And although Pakistan was one of the first Muslim countries to have a female prime minister, it currently has only 20.6 per cent female representation in the lower house of parliament with an even lower rate, 18.3 per cent, in the upper house.

    In sum, as a result of patriarchal norms that subordinate women to men, women experience multiple forms of discrimination at all levels, from their everyday home life to political participation on the national stage. 

    Many CSOs are working to promote women’s and girls’ rights in Pakistan. Although the situation remains tough and there is much backlash in response to women being vocal about their rights, the strong women’s movement of Pakistan is getting stronger and making sure women’s rights issues remain alive and progress continues to happen.

    The International Women’s Day (IWD) theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How have you organised around it in the communities you work with?

    On IWD, GAIN offices in Africa, Asia and Europe are continuing to do the work that needs to be done while also taking the time to recognise women’s achievements in improving food systems.

    As we know only too well, women’s contributions are often undervalued, unpaid and overlooked. This is even more pernicious in connection to food systems, where women are key leaders at every step of the way – as farmers, processors, wageworkers, traders and consumers. And still women and girls are often the last members of a household that get to eat.

    In 2021, for the second year in a row, the Global Health 50/50 report – an annual survey of public, private, civil society and international organisations operating in the global health space – ranked GAIN’s gender and equity-related policies very high. This is because GAIN is fully committed to ensuring diversity throughout its programmes. We are currently developing a new programmatic gender policy to ensure women involved in food systems are given the same opportunities as men and their rights are always fully respected. We have also purposefully diversified our board and senior leadership, including our country directors. Our board has recently committed to seeking gender balance, meaning that it will have to make sure that at least half its voting members are women. And we are one of the few organisations that has a young female Partnership Council member. All of this is what gives us the right perspective in addressing nutrition challenges that differentially affect women and girls.

    Civic space in Pakistan is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with GAIN through itswebsite orFacebook page. 


  • Shock and sadness spurs anti-Trump protestors

    Ahead of the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America, activists and civil society are mobilising protests against the new establishment. CIVICUS speaks to Nicole Barner, an activist who works on economic justice and is based in Washington D.C. Barner will take part in some of the inauguration day protests.