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CSW: will there be an Agreed Conclusion to the CSW this year?

As the CSW 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. Furious arguments are going on over the use of language: 'harmful practices' or 'traditional harmful practises', 'girl' or 'child'? 

Only a few of the thousands of NGO women who have managed to raise the funds to get here in New York can afford to stay for the second week when the negotiations on the text of the draft agreed conclusions are at their most intense, with governments' negotiators burning the midnight oil.

Women from many countries are paying their own costs to be here, often crowded into small rented studios, sharing beds, or camping on sofas, even sleeping on the floor. They are putting up with a very unwelcome and bureaucratic system, with crowded cramped facilities. Even the lovely UN cafeteria overlooking the East River is barred to then unless they are the lucky owners of that precious Secondary Pass that will gain 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 go it in every speech, UN report or resolution in recent years.

As the CSW goes into the second week today, maybe it is too late anyway for women's civil society organisations to make their input. It was last week that we NGOs had the chance to influence our official delegations. And that depended on whether the latter were at all accessible. Fortunately, we in the UK, many of us devastated in 2010 by the abolition of our 40 year old institutional mechanism, the UK WNC, have managed, over the last two years to create a new "hub" for more than eighty UK women's NGOs.  This UK NGO Liaison CSW57 group played a major role in parallel and side events on both sides of the road last week. It met with our UK Mission, our Minister, Lynne Featherstone and the FCO and DFID negotiators almost every evening, and received up-to-the-minute information  on what was going on between the Delegations, on the challenges and minefields, on the cultural and political conflicts, on fragmenting, dividing and creation of the various "blocks" of countries seeking new alliances on the controversial passages of the text of the Agreement, to do with, in the main, sex and sexuality and reproductive rights.

Late on Friday night, UN Member States finished the first reading of the draft Agreement. The CSW Chair, Mrs. Marjan Kamira of Liberia, in order to accelerate the process of getting an agreed text, asked States to let her know in writing what issues they compromise on, so she can put together the next draft. This was expected by Sunday afternoon, the 10th March.

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, all 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, UAR, Malaysia, Kuwait, Libya, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

Three of these countries are from the Commonwealth, and it is sad and bewildering that a country like Bangladesh that led, for years in the South Asia region, on family planning services and programmes, that targeted hard-to-reach women, should have now wandered to the other side. 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 it 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 the negotiations to get the acceptable text on this year's theme Prevention and Elimination of Violence against Women and Girls.

Here are some examples. A battle is ongoing on the use of the word "girl". Some countries want to omit "girl" from the Violence Against Women and Girls' altogether. That is, they want VAW and not VAWG.  Instead they clamour for " child" as a substitute in the draft Agreement. Such language is causing near apoplexy among many pro-Beijing 95  language countries, and among the NGOs, for countries differ hugely as to at what age a female ceases to be a "child".  A nine 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 kidnapped, abducted, raped, girls as young as twelve, being trafficked, held captive, forced to have sex with many men every day. Child marriage is on the increase, it is not really declining. One of the causes is the increase in widowhood among young mothers, especially in context of armed conflict, who are denied rights to inheritance, homeless, begging, displaced and unable to house, feed, educate their daughters who then 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  ten  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 labour, in domestic service, in 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 on. With the Vatican wanting only to "recall" the Beijing PFA, rather than "reaffirm" it. And with its strange assortment of allies, as referred to in my earlier piece, playing mayhem over the language on sexual health and reproductive services and programmes, sex education.

A nightmare for the negotiators this week. The UK and most of the Europe block, apart from Malta - and maybe Poland and Hungary - abstaining or joining another group, are insistent on keeping to the Beijing language. Any roll back and they prefer that there to be no Agreed Conclusion, no Outcome Document. This would be a betrayal of all the women and girls in the world suffering such torture and abuse, and deaths.

As for the international language, in translation there can be some comical understandings. A colleague was speaking of " gender mainstreaming" at a conference in Cambodia. She could not fathom why everyone was laughing. Translated they took it to mean " men and women going swimming together in the river".

I am keeping my fingers crossed for this week and hoping that the world's women and girls get the Outcome from this CSW they deserve.

About the author

Margaret Owen is the Director of Widows for Peace through Democracy. She is the Patron of Peace in Kurdistan, a UK barrister and an international women’s human rights activist. Follow her on twitter @electionmargie

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