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UN Women’s Conference Agreement Is Under Assault


UN Commission on the STatus of Women
A march led by Yoo Soon-taek (second from left, in white hat), the wife of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in front of the UN, supporting the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women on March 8, 2013. The actresses Monique Coleman, far left, and Susan Sarandon, third from left, joined the celebration. EVAN SCHNEIDER/UN PHOTO

As the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women’s annual conference enters its final week, the political agendas of different countries are reflected in the deep divisions over how to prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls, the theme this year. Furious arguments are going on over the use of such language as “harmful practices” or “traditional harmful practises”; “girl” or “child.”

Only a few of the thousands of women representing nongovernmental organizations who have managed to raise the funds to get here to New York can afford to stay for the second week, when the negotiations on the draft text of the outcome document are at their most intense.

Women from many countries are paying their own costs to be here, often crowded into small rental studios, sharing beds or camping on sofas, even sleeping on the floor. They are putting up with a very unwelcome and bureaucratic UN system, with cramped facilities. Even the lovely UN cafeteria overlooking the East River is barred to them, unless they are the lucky owners of the precious “secondary pass,” which gives them entrance to the UN building. Thousands of women have never been able to get a foothold inside. We are all saying that the space for civil society is shrinking, in spite of constant references to it in every speech, UN report or resolution in recent years.

As the conference goes into its second week, maybe it is too late for women’s civil society organizations to make their input. It was last week that we nongovernmental groups had the chance to influence our official delegations. And that depended on whether the latter were accessible. Fortunately, we in Britain, many of us devastated in 2010 by the abolition of our 40-year-old institutional mechanism, the Women’s National Commission, have managed over the last two years to create a new hub for more than 80 British women’s nongovernmental organizations.

This liaison group played a major role in parallel and side events on both sides of First Avenue last week at the women’s conference. It met with our British mission at the UN, Lynne Featherstone, member of Parliament, British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development negotiators almost every evening. We received up-to-the-minute information on what was going on between the delegations on the challenges and minefields, cultural and political conflicts, fragmenting, dividing and creation of the various blocs of countries seeking new alliances on the controversial passages of the draft agreement. These have to do with, in the main, sex and sexuality and reproductive rights.

Late on Friday night, March 8, UN member states finished the first reading of the draft. The chairwoman of the Commission on the Status of Women, Marjon Kamara of Liberia, asked states to let her know in writing what issues they would compromise on, so she could put together the next draft. This was expected by Sunday, March 10.

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States are now regrouping in problematic combinations — for women’s reproductive rights — to show their strength and muscle. For example, a few days ago, a new cross-regional group was formed, mostly Islamic countries, who will now be quite a force to measure up to in the negotiations this week.  They are Algeria, Bahrain, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Russia, Syria, United Arab Republic, Malaysia, Kuwait, Libya, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

Three of these countries are from the British Commonwealth, and it is sad and bewildering that a country like Bangladesh, which led on family planning services and programs in the South Asia region for years, that targeted hard-to-reach women, should wander to the other side. That is the side that wishes to put the clock back and restrict women’s rights to have control over their own bodies; that will not protect women from violence within the home.

Given its good track record on health services for women, we are all hoping that Bangladesh can be wooed back to its original position on gender equality and women’s empowerment. These new regroupings reflect the disturbing rise of extreme fundamentalism, a trend apparent in all religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism.

It is the nuances of language that are key to the difficulties in getting the acceptable text on this year’s theme, preventing and eliminating violence against women and girls.

Here are some examples. A battle is going on over the use of  “girl.” Some countries want to omit “girl” from the phrase “violence against women and girls” and just want “violence against women.” Instead, they clamor for use of “child” as a substitute in the draft agreement. Such language is causing near apoplexy among many pro-Beijing 95 language countries and among the nongovernmental organizations because countries differ hugely as to what age a female ceases to be a “child.”

A 9-year-old girl who has reached her first menses is considered to be old enough for marriage. So the language on forced marriages becomes ambiguous. We must keep in the word “girl.”  All last week we heard horrendous tales of abducted and raped girls as young as 12 being trafficked and forced to have sex with many men everyday. Child marriage is on the increase. A main cause is the rise in widowhood among young mothers, especially in armed conflict, where widows are denied rights to inheritance, become homeless and are unable to house, feed and educate their daughters. So they give them away to marriage or are tricked by traffickers.

In Afghanistan, it is known that young widows are selling their daughters for as little as 10 dollars. We cannot allow these practices to continue.

Another highly contentious language issue concerns prostitution. “Women involved in prostitution,” rather than “sex workers.” Feminists argue passionately over whether all prostitution is forced, but we have to fight hard to tackle the quite terrible global industry of trafficking for sex, not forgetting that women and girls are also trafficked for exploited slave labor in domestic service, agriculture and for the organ trade.

There is also a conflict over the words “harmful traditional practices.” Some countries prefer “harmful practices” and deletion of the word “traditional.” And so it goes, with the Vatican wanting only to “recall” the Beijing platform for action, rather than “reaffirm” it.

The British and most of the Europe bloc, apart from Malta’s abstaining or joining another group, are insistent on keeping to the Beijing language. If there is any rollback, they prefer no outcome document.

I am hoping that the world’s women and girls get the outcome they deserve.

This essay was adapted from one published on Open Democracy.

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Margaret Owen, OBE, is a lawyer and the founder and president of Widows for Peace Through Democracy, a British nonprofit organization. She also ran the law and policy division at the International Planned Parent Federation and worked with the Coordinating Committee for the Welfare of Ugandan Asians (CCWUA). She has been a consultant for the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization, Unicef and the British Commonwealth secretariat.

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