CSW: it's time to question the Vatican's power at the UN

In the final days of the UN Commission on the Status of Women summit on eliminating violence against women and girls, the Vatican, in alliance with Iran, Syria and Russia, is working to roll-back agreement on women’s rights. No other religious institution or special interest group has this level of influence in UN negotiations. 

zohra moosa
14 March 2013

While Roman Catholic cardinals have been meeting in Rome to choose a new pope, at the 57th annual UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York, delegates from around the world are in the final days of a meeting to agree a new commitment on eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls. The Vatican has been extremely active at the summit, proposing more amendments to the text of the outcome document in the first round of negotiations than any other country or regional group. 

Rather than aligning with more moderate Catholic countries or their European neighbours, the Vatican is collaborating with a 16 strong cross-regional group of countries, including Iran, Russia and Syria, in order to push through amendments to key language. Their efforts are aimed at changing wording in the text to roll-back past agreements and prevent advances on key issues such as supporting women and girls who face violence in relationships other than marriage, women’s right to control their sexual and reproductive health and access to abortion for survivors of rape. 

The Vatican is not an official member of the UN, but has special observer status, which enables it to directly intervene in negotiations and propose changes to the text at each stage. In addition, it has hosted side events and has actively lobbied governments from countries with significant Catholic populations across Africa, Latin America and Asia to increase pressure on them to back down from voicing progressive positions. The meeting is due to end on Friday 15th March, but it is not clear if there will be an agreement among all countries by then. 

Rowan Harvey, ActionAid’s women’s rights adviser who attended the UN meeting, said: “It is time for the UN to look again at whether the Vatican should be permitted to wield this much power in international negotiations on women’s rights. No other religious institution or special interest group has this level of influence in UN negotiations. 

“One in three women in the world will suffer some kind of violence in their lifetime and it is vital that we listen to their voices in these debates. Coming after high profile incidents like the Delhi rape and the shooting of Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan for standing up for the right of girls to go to school, it is more essential than ever that the world comes together to send out a message that violence against women has to stop. As the world watches to see if Pope Francis will usher in an era of change, a welcome first sign would be a more progressive stance on the rights of half the world’s population to be free from violence.”

Delegates and activists from around the world have travelled to the summit to share expertise on how to prevent violence against women and girls, support those affected and promote gender equality. ActionAid, which works to support women to claim their rights in over 40 countries, is there working with a spectrum of faith-based organisations, all of whom believe their faith supports work against violence against women and girls. Despite their direct experience of the issues involved, none of the women’s rights and international development organisations attending the UN meeting has the power and privileged status enjoyed by the Vatican and their representatives.

 ActionAid is calling for a strong outcome document from the UN Commission on the Status of Women meeting that advances women’s human rights and gender equality and commits to eliminating all forms of violence against all women and girls. As the successor framework to the Millennium Development Goals, due to expire in 2015, is also currently being discussed, ActionAid is urging delegates to include in the outcome document a call for a clear target on eliminating violence against women and girls within a stand alone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment in the post-2015 development framework.

Press Release from the ActionAid team   


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