By Courtney Brooks, RFE/RL
UNITED NATIONS -- Muslim and Western countries have approved a new United Nations declaration aimed at combatting violence against women and girls. The nonbinding declaration, adopted by consensus by the UN Commission on the Status of Women, says that violence against females cannot be justified or ignored by any "custom, tradition, or religious consideration." The declaration also calls on countries to provide girls and women with sexual education and contraceptives.
The declaration was approved on March 15 despite reservations from the Roman Catholic Church, Iran, Russia, and other states.
Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood wields dominant political power, had claimed the declaration would "destroy society."
Women's rights advocates said approval of the declaration sets an important precedent in efforts to enshrine global rights for women.
Around 190 countries participated in the negotiations.
Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the New York-based International Women's Health Coalition, said the approved text was "ambitious."
"It's a good, ambitious text that takes a strong stand in addressing violence against women and girls, and we're happy to see it adopted," she said.
Opposition From Christian, Muslim Conservatives
Diplomats told RFE/RL that an "unholy alliance" of Iran, Russia, and the Vatican, as well as some African and Middle Eastern states, had pushed from the start to alter parts of the draft text, citing traditional or religious grounds.
A UN diplomat who requested anonymity said contentious issues included gay rights, sexual education for adolescents, access to contraception and abortion, and marital rape.
Kowalski said rights advocates would have liked to have seen the text include a call for women to be able to file a rape accusation against their husbands, as well as the condemnation of violence based on sexual orientation.
The approved text, however, does calls on governments to provide emergency contraception to women who have been raped. It also calls for provision of contraceptives and access to treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.
One of the additions requested by Egypt and other countries was a clause allowing states to "opt out" if the text conflicted with "traditional" practices.
Critics said such an addition would essentially render the document useless.
Kowalski said the approved text included a clause saying states should not use cultural or religious reasons to ignore violence against women.
"There's a very strong statement that says states have the obligation to condemn and respond to violence, and they shouldn't abuse culture, tradition or religion in this regard," she said.
Supporters say that although the declaration is nonbinding, it nonetheless carries political weight.
Radhika Balakrishnan, executive director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership, accused Russia of using the debate to bolster its own international political influence.
Egypt also drew ire from civil society groups for a statement released by the Muslim Brotherhood claiming that the declaration would "destroy" Egyptian society by giving women rights to manage family finances or travel without a husband's approval.
The declaration was passed in the wake of outrage over recent incidents of horrific violence against females.
They include the October 2012, shooting of 15-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousafzai, a campaigner for girls' education, by the Taliban, and the gang-rape and murder of a young Indian woman on a bus in New Delhi.
Copyright (c) 2013 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
Related story from UN News Center:
15 March 2013 - Top United Nations officials today welcomed an agreement by more than 130 Member States on the prevention and elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls, and urged governments to translate the outcome of the 'historic' gathering into concrete actions to protect and promote women's human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Michelle Bachelet addresses participants at a CSW side event. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon looks on. (UN Photo/E. Debebe)
“Violence against women is a heinous human rights violation, global menace, a public health threat and a moral outrage,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement attributable to his spokesperson.
“The Secretary-Gener al hopes that all the partners who came together at this historic session and others around the world will now translate this agreement into concrete action to prevent and end violence against women and girls,” the spokesperson added.
Thousands of representatives of governments, inter-governmental organizations, civil society, the private sector and UN partners collaborated on the outcome document of the two-week 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York.
The 17-page 'Agreed Conclusions' of the Commission “condemns in the strongest terms the pervasive violence against women and girls, and calls for increased attention and accelerated action for prevention and response,” said in a statement the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), which supports the Commission.
UN Women said it welcomed the important focus on prevention in the document, particularly through education and awareness-raising, as well as an emphasis on addressing gender inequalities in the political, economic and social spheres.
Among the priorities in the document is the establishment of multi-sectoral services for survivors of violence, including for health, psychological support and counselling, as well as the need to protect the right to sexual and reproductive health.
Ending impunity is also highlighted in the text, according to UN Women, in the context of punishing perpetrators, along with improving collection of evidence and responding to victims.
As many as seven out of every 10 women will experience violence in their lifetimes, according to UN figures. While more than 125 countries have specific laws that penalize domestic violence, some 603 million women live in countries where it is not considered a crime.
“By adopting this document, governments have made clear that discrimination and violence against women and girls has no place in the 21st century,” the UN entity said. “There is no turning back.”
UN Women's Executive Director, Michelle Bachelet said she was “particularly heartened” that an agreement was reached now given that in 2003, when the Commission took up the topic of violence against women, participants could not agree on a plan.
“We will keep moving forward to the day when women and girls can live free of fear, violence and discrimination. The 21st century is the century of inclusion and women's full and equal rights and participation,” added Ms. Bachelet.
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