India’s Membership in the UN Commission on the Status of Women

On September 14, India was elected a member of the prestigious United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women, securing the second highest votes ahead of China. Considering that this is the leading intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to advancing the goals of gender equality and women’s empowerment, India’s nomination is a significant victory. In fact, India’s Deputy Representative for UN Women perceives this as a critical step in India’s endeavor to position itself as the next superpower.

However, an important question that still needs addressing is—what implications does the election result hold for India and its citizens? Based on the current political environment, it appears that India’s new membership will contribute towards enhancing India’s confidence in international forums, improve its global standing, and, in real terms, develop the mechanisms that enable it to empower women.

India’s Pathway to Triumph

India’s path to joining the commission began months ago when India’s Permanent Mission to the UN worked actively for the seat, negotiating with member states. Subsequently, the Commission on the Status of Women, a body of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), held elections to finalize two additional members for the Asia-Pacific category on September 14 with China, India, and Afghanistan in the running. Afghanistan and India won the ballot among the 54 ECOSOC members with Afghanistan receiving 39 votes and India 38 votes. China obtained only 27 votes, which was less than the required minimum of 28 votes.

India’s victory means that it will now work with other countries—including Argentina, Austria, the Dominican Republic, and Israel—on the Commission for four years from 2021 until 2025. Given that India is also beginning a two-year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC) in 2021, its entry into the UN Commission on the Status of Women is a big win as many now view India as a country with a variegated purpose, branching its focus from hard security issues to soft security issues.

Implications for India

India’s nomination to the UN Commission on the Status of Women provides India with a much-needed confidence boost, serves as a means for India to expand its influence, and provides a chance for India to establish itself as a stronger advocate of women’s rights. To begin with, India’s low economic growth, uncertain foreign policy trajectory, and aging military capability have all contributed towards plummeting the country’s confidence and self-esteem. Adding to this, the problem of China’s growing global role and expanding influence among the developing countries has restricted India’s ability to fulfill its great power ambition. In fact, over the past decade, China has strengthened its economic and military ties with India’s neighbors, and has replaced India as the primary trading partner for many countries within the South Asian region, raising serious challenges for New Delhi both internationally and regionally.

India’s nomination to the UN Commission on the Status of Women provides India with a much-needed confidence boost, serves as a means for India to expand its influence, and provides a chance for India to establish itself as a stronger advocate of women’s rights.

Cutting to the present, India is perhaps facing its most grave national security crisis in many years, due to China changing the status along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The LAC was devised to separate the Indian controlled territory from the Chinese controlled territory and to ease tensions between the two nations. Since May this year, Chinese troops have made repeated attempts to encroach into Indian territory, specifically along its eastern periphery. However, India individually neither has the economic nor the defense wherewithal to counter China. As a result, the timing of the ECOSOC’s election result provides a huge lift in consolidating and developing India’s confidence, especially against China. It sends a message that India has the potential to garner international support if the Line of Actual Control situation worsens.

Second, by winning the elections India has clearly demonstrated a shift in its priorities—where it is no longer largely concerned about military development, but also the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of development—which could potentially work in its favor by building new affiliations with member states that are already deliberating over women’s security issues. Military clashes with China cause heavy casualties on both sides and women often bear a disproportionate burden of war. With catastrophic consequences for women, the international community will naturally extend its support to the non-aggressor. India’s entry into the commission provides it with an opportunity to build global trust and partnerships.

Third, India’s seat at the UN Commission on the Status of Women serves as an important step towards counter-balancing China’s established dominance within various international organizations. Over the past few years, China’s authority and control has rapidly grown within the UN and its agencies. Currently, China heads four out of 15 of the UN’s specialized agencies, helping China to extend its influence in the global decision-making processes. As a matter of fact, China with its veto power has continually hindered India’s effort to become a member of the UNSC. While India’s victory might not necessarily provide it with a better chance at the UNSC, it does help the country to emerge as a stronger global player in a better position to negotiate its terms, voice its opinion, and direct discussions on important issues.

Women’s empowerment not only mobilizes the potential of half of India’s human capital, but also improves the overall quality of life within its territories and beyond.

Finally, the elections have served as a litmus test of India’s global commitment, accountability, and center-staging of women’s development—an issue that critically affects the entire nation. In India, women continue to face discrimination in almost every sphere of life. The recent gang rape of a 19-year-old Dalit woman by four upper-caste men has generated outrage and uproar across the nation.  National policymakers have only now begun realizing that women’s empowerment is critical to the country’s overall development. Women’s empowerment not only mobilizes the potential of half of India’s human capital, but also improves the overall quality of life within its territories and beyond.

Moving Forward

At the global stage, a new world order is emerging where, for the first time, the conversation centers on women-led development instead of women in development. As a result of its membership in the ECOSOC, India, which has faced scrutiny on issues of female empowerment, can participate in this wave of transformation as an important decision-maker, rather than simply a spectator.

India’s entry into the UN Commission on the Status of Women has positioned it to confidently participate in international diplomacy, placed it on par with other countries in an international forum, and provided it with a chance to showcase itself as an emerging global power committed to women’s rights.

It is important to consider that the Commission’s mandate only involves providing recommendations on critical problems within the sphere of women’s rights and that these only have a limited legal bearing on its members. As a result of this lack of implementation mandate, India may not be able, in action, to turn its membership into a victory for women’s empowerment in real times. It remains to be seen how India uses its leverage here to expand its influence within the sphere of international women’s rights.

To put it simply, membership is undoubtedly a diplomatic victory, but for India to fully make use of this opportunity, the country and its decision-makers need to display an active engagement within the Commission and its activities to promote women’s rights and empowerment.

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Image 1: UN Women via Flickr

Image 2: India at UN, NY via Flickr

Posted in , China, India, UN, Women's Rights

Akanksha Khullar

Akanksha Khullar

Akanksha Khullar is a Researcher with the Centre for Internal and Regional Security at Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. Her research focuses on gender issues, particularly on understanding the Women, Peace and Security agenda, and identifying how national, regional and international organisations contribute in shaping the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. Akanksha is currently working on mapping out India’s engagement with UNSCR 1325 and analysing how women in India are participating in conflict-management and peacekeeping. Prior to joining IPCS, she has interned with several think-tanks, international organisations and government agencies. Akanksha holds a Masters of International Relations (Advanced) degree from the Australian National University.

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