U.N. body agrees on women’s rights policy, skirting sexual politics

March 16, 2013

A U.N. policymaking body agreed upon a declaration Friday urging an end to violence against women and girls despite concerns from conservative Muslim countries and the Vatican about references to women’s sexual and reproductive rights.

Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Libya, Nigeria and Sudan, along with Honduras and the Vatican, expressed reservations about the declaration of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, but did not block adoption of the 18-page text.

While the declaration of the commission, created in 1946 for the advancement of women, is nonbinding, diplomats and rights activists said it carries enough global weight to pressure countries to improve the lives of women and girls.

“People worldwide expected action, and we didn’t fail them. Yes, we did it,” Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile and head of U.N. Women, which supports the commission, told delegates Friday after two weeks of negotiations on the text.

Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition, said the declaration was a victory for women and girls but could have gone further to recognize violence faced by lesbians and transgender people.

“Governments have agreed to take concrete steps to end violence,” she said. “For the first time, they agreed to make sure that women who have been raped can get critical health-care services, like emergency contraception and safe abortion.”

Earlier in the talks, Iran, Russia, the Vatican and others had threatened to derail the declaration with concerns about references such as access to emergency contraception, abortion and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, activists said.

A proposed amendment by Egypt — which would have allowed states to avoid implementing the declaration if it clashed with national laws or religious or cultural values — failed. Some diplomats said it would have undermined the whole document.

But on Friday, Egypt’s delegation said it would not stand in the way of the declaration for the sake of women’s empowerment.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said states now have a responsibility to turn the 2013 declaration into reality.

“Violence against women is a heinous human rights violation, [a] global menace, a public health threat and a moral outrage,” Ban said in a statement. “No matter where she lives, no matter what her culture, no matter what her society, every woman and girl is entitled to live free of fear.”The full declaration of the Commission on the Status of Women can be seen at: www.unwomen.org.

— Reuters

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