The UN Declaration on women passes…

Anokhi Madhavji

The fifty-seventh session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) took place at United Nations Headquarters in New York from 4th to 15th March 2013.

After two weeks of contentious negotiations, Friday saw the on-going debate finally come to an end as 131 countries reached a consensus on a compromise 17-page document, aimed at ending violence against women.

The CSW was established in 1946 and meets annually to assess progress on gender equality, and set standards and policies to promote women’s empowerment. The CSW last discussed violence against women at its meeting in 2003, but member states failed to reach an agreement.

Recent events – the gang-rape and murder of a student in Delhi and the One Billion Rising campaign – have no-doubt added motion to the cause, and Michelle Bachelet, the head of the U.N. women’s agency, called the document “historic” because it sets global standards for action to prevent and end “one of the gravest violations of human rights in the world, the violence that is committed against women and girls.”

After months of lobbying, the outcome document includes robust agreements to promote gender equality, women’s empowerment, and to ensure women’s reproductive rights and their access to sexual and reproductive health services – an area of particular controversy. It also touches upon previous international agreements on women’s rights, such as those made in Cairo back in 1994.

The International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) welcomed the unequivocal call in the agreed conclusions, also outlined in the document, for accessible and affordable healthcare services. This included sexual and reproductive health services, such as emergency contraception and safe abortion for victims of violence – another highly challenged issue over the past two weeks.

The outcome document emphasised the need to end harmful traditional practices, including child marriage, and called on member states to ensure services were focused on relegated groups, such as indigenous women, older women, female migrant workers, women with disabilities, women living with HIV, and women held in custody.

Justine Greening, Britain’s international development secretary, said:

“I’m delighted that the CSW has reached an agreement after last year’s shocking result. It sends a clear and unified message to the world that there is no place in any society for acts of violence against girls and women. Britain has never stood on the sidelines when it comes to women’s rights and we must now use this momentum to help push for international action on preventing and eliminating these appalling crimes.”

A hard fought settlement no-doubt, which has been hugely welcomed by women’s right activists. However, certain religious groups have expressed concerns. Some of these groups do not accept that women own their own bodies, and see this agreement as an outrage. Earlier in the week, the Brotherhood, a political group in Egypt, slammed the anticipated document for advocating sexual freedoms for women and the right to abortion “under the guise of sexual and reproductive rights.” It called the title, on eliminating and preventing all forms of violence against women and girls, “deceitful.”

One other spokesperson of such groups, Khaled Al-Sherif, said:

“There are clear differences between women and men and their rights and responsibilities in society. Giving equal rights to illegitimate children, and the right for women to choose their sexual partners freely, and their right to terminate unwanted out-of-wedlock pregnancies, will lead to the disintegration of the family in society and will encourage immorality.”

Many of those that are lobbying based on ‘religious right’ believe that endorsing women’s reproductive rights will open the door to more abortions and undercut the role of the family. But surely empowering women and giving them the simple right to choose, does not mean that they will automatically seek abortions or be exposed to sexual assault. It just affords women the equal respect and standing that they deserve, in my personal view.

After years of struggle and slow progress on statutes, laws and agreements, this is an outcome we can be thankful for and celebrate. It can be quite overwhelming when we take a step back and look at the impact and scale of violence against women in the world. As with many, I was quite worried that the UN may not be able to reach a conclusion this year, just like previous ones. I am incredibly relieved and admire all the leaders who approached these negotiations with determination and commitment to reach an agreement. Despite the continuous objections, I see this as a major step forward…

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