Promised UN stand on violence against women now in jeopardy

Despite months of negotiations, the UN's Commisson on the Status of Women is having trouble getting its more conservative members to agree to a declaration on violence against women, Nahlah Ayed reports. The main holdouts include Iran, Egypt, Russia and the Vatican.

Activists worried status of women declaration will be watered down today

UN's Commission on the Status of Women might water down its stand on the rights of women to please some conservative governments. 3:32

It's the kind of day at the United Nations when the unity of its members could mean something tangible for millions of women for whom the organization often seems remote.

The annual meeting of the UN's Commission on the Status of Women — which made violence against women a priority issue this year — ends today.

And yet, despite two weeks of negotiations with 190 governments, the help of some 6,000 participants, and months of planning — there was still no deal as of Thursday night.

Worse, activists were alarmed there would be a deal — but one that waters down the rights of women to please conservative governments.

"We strongly demand all governments and the international community reject any attempt to invoke traditional values or morals to infringe upon human rights guaranteed by international law," said a Thursday statement signed by dozens of international groups supportive of women's rights.

"Customs, tradition or religious considerations must not be tolerated to justify discrimination and violence against women and girls."

Staring those governments in the face — and the UN commission itself — is a history of failure to find common ground on this matter. Last year, the conference failed even to produce a declaration.

More importantly, they're faced with the memories of a year that has elicited singular, especially cruel examples of the violence they're meant to combat.

For example, the cold-hearted shooting of Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani advocate for girls' education; and the senseless rape and murder of a young student on a New Delhi bus — memories very much on the minds of countless, angry women worldwide.

But, for the UN commission, the road to consensus on how to fight violence against women has been strewn with religious and cultural argument, and was acrimonious to say the least.

A draft declaration urges member states to take a number of measures, including the elimination of any impunity in violence against women, by prosecuting and punishing perpetrators; allowing women and girls to have control over their sexuality and access to health care; doing away with harmful practices such as female genital mutilation; providing services to victims of violence such as emergency contraception and safe abortion where permitted by law.

From the start, countries like Iran and Russia, as well as conservative religious groups in the U.S. and the Vatican, have pushed to alter parts of the draft proposal on traditional or religious grounds.

Some of those sections deal with matters such as the rights of gays and lesbians, contraception, and giving women the right to file rape complaints against their husbands.

Women activists, who have long toiled for these kinds of changes in law in their home countries, are not pleased.

One of them, Kavita Krishna, says there has been progress in India — where a new law has been introduced on sexual assault — but the government still needs a push to refine it.

She says it's time for an international declaration.

Enter the 21st century

"We want the UN to come up with that declaration, undiluted," she said in an email from New Delhi. "Iran, Russia and the Vatican can kindly enter the 21st century."

Malala Yousufzai, being discharged from hospital in Birmingham in January, three months after being shot by a Taliban gunman. She faces further surgery involving a titanium plate to reconstruct part of her shattered skull. (Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham / Associated Press)

Several Muslim countries also have reservations, but Egypt has been among the prominent naysayers — pushing to include a clause in the declaration that would allow each country to adapt and implement it in ways that suit its unique culture — which would essentially nullify the declarations's impact, say critics.

Egypt's women face a multitude of issues, including endemic sexual harassment and assault, which a committee of the upper house recently blamed on the women themselves.

Egypt's upper house is dominated by Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which condemned the UN declaration strongly on Thursday before it was even agreed upon — watered down or not.

In a statement on its English language website, the Brotherhood listed items it said would be included in the proposed declaration that it found objectionable: "granting equal rights to homosexuals," "full sexual freedom" for girls, granting women the right to equal inheritance, and "cancelling the need for a husband's consent in matters like travel, work, or use of contraception.

"These are destructive tools meant to undermine the family as an important institution," the Brotherhood statement read. "They would subvert the entire society and drag it to pre-Islamic ignorance."

Egyptian champions of women's rights aren't surprised at the Brotherhood's position. "They have their own interpretation of religious scripture when it comes to women, and they want to force it on the rest of the society, which is not acceptable," said Sara Abou Bakr, politics editor of Daily News Egypt.

"It's very worrying, but at the same time, in my opinion, it's good," she said. "People are discovering the way they think, they are discovering that they are misusing religion."

Such fierce resistance to change — new to countries like Egypt and Libya which now have more conservative governments for the first time — is  another reason why a declaration from the conference on Friday is so crucial, activists say. Not as a standalone solution to violence against women, but as the start of one.

"I am hopeful," said Mary Scott, who attended the first week of the conference as the UN representative for the National Council of Women of Canada. The group was one of the signatories to the statement addressed to the CSW yesterday.

"There is a lot riding on this Commission for the Status of Women. Many NGOs and many women are watching. A lot of women have been working very hard with government delegations."

In Cairo, Abou Bakr said it's the work on the ground that matters most when it comes to women's rights, but a UN declaration would give activists a manifesto that would provide strong backing for their work.

"It will make me feel disappointed that all these figures who have been scratching their heads for the last couple of weeks cannot agree on the right way to treat women," she said. "Especially now we're in the 21st century."