Beyond a war of words: will the UN agree to act to end violence against women?

The 57th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women opens today with member States - and thousands of women's rights advocates and organisations - set to debate how to end violence against women. Valeria Costa-Kostritsky reports from New York

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky
4 March 2013

This year the priority theme of the CSW is the 'Elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls'. The annual war of words will begin as delegates from member States gather at the UN to debate an agreement - the agreed conclusions - word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph. A draft agreement provided by UN Women serves as a template, and each country has been invited to make amendments. The document now includes the changes suggested by each country.

The war of words at the CSW is critical to the outcome of the gathering. The stakes this year are particularly high following the failure of last year's CSW to reach agreement. The main theme then was "the empowerment of rural women", and language that had previously been agreed upon during the 1995 fifth world conference on women in Beijing, was challenged by countries including Poland, Malta and Hungary, Russia, Iran and the Vatican.  Key areas of disagreement centred on reproductive rights, the rights of lesbian and bisexual women, and the use of the word 'gender' - perceived by some to a code word for sexuality and sexual orientation. Progress became impossible, and rather than agreeing on a text that would have taken women's rights backwards, member States decided that there should be no agreed conclusions.

Last year's utter failure makes this year's session all the more significant. Zohra Moosa, women's rights adviser at  ActionAid (UK) summed it up: “This is what's at stake this year: Do we try to advance ? And if we can't advance, do we agree again not to have conclusions? But what does that say, if global leaders can't decide that we need to protect women's rights? What does that tell the women of the world?”

The arguments about women's bodily autonomy are likely to intensify this year. Iran and the Vatican -  a permanent observer at the UN - are expected to try and block the discussion on women's reproductive rights, including emergency contraception for women who have been raped. Last year the Vatican denied that previous agreements on women rights had been universally agreed, and argued that they don't apply to all States and should be open to renegotiation. This year, the speaker for the Holy See will be Helen Alvaré, a staunch pro-life supporter who has presented women's right to abortion as a threat to religious freedom.

Adding to the deep divisions over women's reproductive rights, the arguments will have a heightened significance this year because they are taking place against the backdrop of  recent efforts by a coalition of members led by the Russian Federation, Cuba and China, to push through a process which threatens the universality of human rights by seeking to make them contingent on subjective ‘traditional values of humankind’ such as ‘responsible behaviour’.

The CSW is one of the few opportunities where civil society is able to interact directly with governments and States, and it's the main opportunity for women's human rights organisations to hold governments to account. Parallel to the main discussion taking place in the UN building, dozens and dozens of parallel side events take place run by NGOS to discuss strategies and tactics to promote and defend women's rights.

Debates over the role and influence of the religious lobby, and the relevance of traditional values to human rights law, are reflected in the themes of the parallel civil society and ngo events. With the continued rise of religious fundamentalisms around the world and across religions, with negative consequences for women's rights, AWID (Association of women's rights in development) is holding a session on 'Challenging fundamentalisms'.  Meanwhile, the Vatican is organising an event entitled 'A religious response to the causes and consequences of violence against women'.  Under-funded and unde- resourced ngos working on the frontline of violence against women and girls are up against well-funded pro-life organisations, particularly American ones, such as the Endeavour Forum, which is organising parallel events entitled “healing sexual trauma” and “reproductive health”.

The schedule of parallel events captures the continuum of violence against women is that is being addressed. From Turkey to Kenya, and from  Malawi to Mexico, civil society activists will discuss case studies and share successful initiatives to end violence against women. Mali is organising an event on  violence against women in conflicts zones, Norway is running an event on how domestic violence is dealt with, Chechnya is hosting a session on harmful traditional values and practices, and the Philippines is holding a session on violence against domestic workers.  UN-Habitat, is holding an event on “A girl's eye view on unsafe urban spaces”, and a panel of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission is holding a panel on  documenting violence against lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in Asia. Women human rights defenders are key stakeholders in addressing violence against women and girls as they provide essential support to women and girls who have experienced violence and work to denounce impunity. Members of the Women Human Rights Defender International Coalition, together with AWID are holding a session on the 'Right to defend rights'

Addressing the role of militarism in violence against women, representatives of the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders are circulating a statement by Professor Betty Rearden and calling for signatories. The opening paragraph reads: " Violence against women (VAW) under the present system of militarized state security is not an aberration that can be stemmed by specific denunciations and prohibitions. VAW is and always has been integral to war and all armed conflict. It pervades all forms of militarism.  It is likely to endure so long as the institution of war is a legally sanctioned instrument of state, so long as arms are the means to political, economic or ideological ends. To reduce VAW; to eliminate its acceptance as a “regrettable consequence” of armed conflict; to exorcize it as a constant of the “real world” requires the abolition of war, the renunciation of armed conflict and the full and equal political empowerment of women as called for by the UN Charter".

As the UN CSW meets for the 57th, will the discussions reflect the violent realities experienced on the ground? Despite what some countries argue, violence against women is a global issue, one that happens everywhere and in every strata of society. It should not be up to each country to decide whether it is a problem for them (or not). It is vital that violence against women be recognised as a global problem and the world's leaders act now to stop it.  

The purpose of the CSW is to evaluate progress on gender equality, identify challenges, set global standards and formulate concrete policies to promote gender equality and women's empowerment worldwide. Activists from all over the world are watching the CSW.  Will member States agree on how to uphold the gender equality outlined in the first CSW meeting in 1947, and eliminate and prevent violence against women and girls ? This year, will it deliver ?

Read more articles on openDemocracy 5050 on the themes being discussed at the CSW

You can also follow the CSW on AWID and watch the official sessions online 

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