International Policy/United Nations

Political Cauldron Boils on U.N. Women's Rights

Thursday, March 21, 2013

As the U.N. superagency loses its founding leader, participants at the Commission on the Status of Women expect the fight between conservative and progressive factions to intensify over sexual orientation, reproductive rights and even domestic violence.




 

Michele Bachelet
Michelle Bachelet, executive director of UN Women, addresses a press conference at the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, March 4-15, 2013.

 

Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten.

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UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)--The produced by the latest global gathering here on women's rights leaves open what appears to be a long-term fight between conservative and progressive factions within the Commission on the Status of Women.

"It's turning into a battle ground over women's rights and that was not the original intention of the Commission on the Status of Women," said Savi Bisnath, associate director of the Rutgers University-based Center for Women's Global Leadership, in New Jersey, in a phone interview. "It was supposed to be a forum in which we can discuss and negotiate and advance women's rights."

UN Women's Executive Director Michelle Bachelet announced her resignation as the head of the gender equality superagency on March 15, the same day 131 U.N. member nations jointly issued the outcome document.

In parting words, the former president of Chile said she was "particularly heartened" that conclusions were reached, given that in 2003, when the commission also tackled the thematic issue of violence against women, it ended without an agreement.

The rights of women are becoming more prominent and contentious at the U.N., as more agencies, offices and initiatives are expected to work together on , and .

Member nations of the U.N. sit in on the Commission on the Status of Women, a policy-making body of the U.N. Economic and Social Council. They negotiate mostly as regional factions.

Conservative Backlash

Shannon Kowalski is director of advocacy and policy of the New York-based International Women's Health Coalition.

"One of the biggest challenges was that the African group, which includes Egypt and a number of ultra-conservative countries, continued to work together as a group," Kowalski said. "The more progressive countries, like Kenya, Zambia and South Africa, were not able to moderate those positions in the way we would have hoped."

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood , calling the document misleading, deceptive and contradictory to the principles of Islam. It listed free contraceptives for adolescent girls, equal rights for adulterous wives, equal rights for homosexuals and the right for women to file legal complaints against their husbands accusing them of sexual assault as "destructive tools meant to undermine the family as an important institution."

The Observer Permanent Mission of the Holy See also mustered strong conservative positions on sexual and reproductive health. The mission was unable to respond to an interview request to meet this publication's deadline.

The conclusions in the final outcome document say that violence against women has a short- and long-term effect on sexual and reproductive health and that governments should provide survivors and victims with access to related services.

Up to seven out of every 10 women will suffer violence in their lifetimes, according to U.N. figures. And about 603 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not a crime.

Kowalski hoped for a more progressive document and said more lobbying will be done around sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as reproductive rights, in the lead up to next year's meeting. That meeting will focus on the "post-2015 development framework," following the end of the eight anti-poverty .

Drawing Global Leaders

The two-week-long meeting routinely attracts thousands of civil society leaders and activists from around the world to participate in back-to-back panel discussions.

Some travel long distances at their own expense or personal risk.

It took Zahara Abdalniem Mohamed, a gender rights activist from North Darfur, Sudan, seven days to reach New York. She took risks in leaving her village. Militants regularly attack and rape women when they go beyond the village's borders, Mohamed said.

But the opportunity for Mohamed and others to share common experiences in New York and report back to their countries each year is worth the trip, she said. They can also take the outcome document home as a national lobbying tool.

Gender rights advocates are calling the agreement uneven. It's strong on such issues as providing emergency contraception to survivors of sexual assault. The document also condemns gender-related killings, or femicide, and violence against women and girls in conflict and post-conflict settings, which drew a statement of commendation from Zainab Bangura, the secretary general's special representative on sexual violence in armed conflict.

It agrees to protect female human rights defenders and says no custom, tradition or religious custom should stop governments from working to eliminate violence against women.

But the document goes silent on protections for lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people. It also does not condemn violence against women in intimate partner relationships.

"It's a crapshoot every year," said Cynthia Rothschild, an independent consultant on sexuality, gender and HIV who has closely followed the negotiations for several years. "Some people say it is the issue of sexual and reproductive rights that makes this controversial. I say it is the manipulation of tradition and culture for a political end. It is the denial of women's rights."

Rothschild said the document's failure to address sexual orientation and gender identity and intimate partner violence was significant, but not surprising. "There is something kind of pathetic about the fact that states can't even allow for recognition that this kind of violence exists in 2013," she added.

Last year, member nations did not agree upon any document to reaffirm the meeting's theme of sexual and reproductive rights.

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