CSW: resisting the backlash against women's human rights

Women's rights activists spent two hard weeks at the Commission on the Status of Women pushing back against fundamentalist opposition and the attempt to roll back women's human rights. Susan Tolmay reports on the battles which resulted in the advancement of women's rights in this year's Agreed Conclusions.

Susan Tolmay
3 April 2013

UN officials and activists celebrated the news that the CSW57 ended with Agreed Conclusions. The majority of states accepted the overall text and commended it as ‘fair and balanced’. However, on both ends of the political spectrum, states expressed some disappointment with the text. Some states regretted that more progress was not made, and others such as Egypt, Libya, Jordan, Iran, Qatar, the Vatican (Holy See), Nicaragua, Honduras and Sudan, expressed reservations with parts of the text - especially any explicit references to sexual and reproductive rights.

At a time when we should be advancing rights that were hard fought for and agreed to almost two decades ago, and implementing programmes to expedite women’s access to and realisation of these rights, including those laid out in a range of international agreements, women’s rights activists spent two tough weeks pushing back against fundamentalist opposition attempting to roll back women’s human rights.

Fundamentalist opposition

This year’s Agreed Conclusions were the result of flexibility and compromise, necessary to avert a similar situation to last year’s CSW 56 that failed to adopt agreed conclusions when positions became polarised as a result of strong fundamentalist opposition by a small group of conservative countries.

These groups were in full force, and stronger, this year. “Unholy alliances” were formed by states including Iran, Russia, Syria, Egypt, some States in the African group and the Vatican, who united in taking positions against women’s sexual and reproductive rights, and against the rights of those who are violated because of their sexual orientation and gender identities. These states obstructed the negotiations, and lobbied hard to water down language that was agreed to decades ago.

Midway into the second week of negotiations at the CSW, Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood, lambasted the proposed CSW outcome document, saying that the document, which calls for an end to violence against violence against women and girls, will “lead to complete disintegration of society… eliminating the moral specificity that helps preserve cohesion of Islamic societies”.

In the 10 point statement the Muslim Brotherhood objected to granting women sexual freedom, sexual and reproductive rights, equal rights for ‘homosexuals’, respect and protection for ‘prostitutes’, equal rights for children born out of wedlock, the equal rights of women, in marriage, inheritance, sharing family roles and the right of women to lay charges of rape against their husbands. The Arab caucus at the CSW - women’s and human rights groups from Egypt, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Tunisia -  expressed concern and opposition to the statement, and urged governments “to clearly denounce all practices which perpetuate violence against women and girls, including those which are justified on the basis of tradition, culture and religion, and work on eliminating them.”

Feminist and women’s organisations issued a statement raising concerns about “the very alarming trends in the negotiations of outcome document of the 57th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women”, calling on governments to say “NO to any re-opening of negotiations on the already established international agreements…commend those states that are upholding women’s rights in totality ... and reject any attempt to invoke traditional values or morals to infringe upon human rights guaranteed by international law”.

One major success for women human rights defenders (WHRDs) at this year’s CSW was the inclusion, for the first time ever, of language in the Agreed Conclusions that specifically requires states to “Support and protect those who are committed to eliminating violence against women, including women human rights defenders in this regard, who face particular risks of violence.” The tireless work, both before and during the CSW, by members of the Women Human Rights Defender International Coalition (WHRD IC) and allies who advocated with member States to include strong language in the Agreed Conclusions paid off, but did not come without resistance. Several states, including Iran, China, Cuba, Syria, Nigeria and Cameroon, failed to acknowledge that violence against women human rights defenders is directly linked to their gender, and the work they do to protect women’s rights. Mexico, Colombia, Turkey and the EU led the argument for the recognition, defence, and inclusion of women human rights defenders in the Agreed Conclusions, and only won after compromising significant parts of the text in last minute negotiations. Whilst their success was welcomed by WHRD IC, the organisation called for stronger commitments to ensure women human rights defenders are able to carry out their work in defence of human rights without fear of reprisals, coercion or intimidation.

Sexual rights, reproductive rights and health

Activists worked to ensure that gains from previous agreements on sexual and reproductive rights were not rolled back, and fought hard for the explicit reaffirmation of accessible and affordable health care services, including sexual and reproductive health services such as emergency contraception and safe abortion for survivors of violence. They also urged governments, for the first time, to procure and supply female condoms. The link between HIV and violence against women is a recurring theme throughout the Agreed Conclusions, with governments committing to strengthen and coordinate programmes and services addressing this intersection, as well as recognizing the need to focus services on the diverse experiences of women and girls.

Governments made specific commitments to ensure the safety of girls in public and private spaces, as well as a commitment to end early and forced marriage. They also committed to preventing, investigating, and punishing acts of violence committed by people in positions of authority, such as teachers, religious leaders, political leaders and law enforcement officials. Other important gains include reaffirming comprehensive evidence-based sexuality education as a means tackle social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, promote gender equality, and eliminate prejudice.

The Agreed Conclusions reaffirm that states should “strongly condemn all forms of violence against women and girls and to refrain from invoking any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination as set out in the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women.” The retention of “religious” in the first paragraph and the inclusion of “religious leaders” were hard fought for by progressive States.

Further obstacles

The fortnight of negotiations at the CSW make it very clear that conservative States are not ready to accept and advance rights related to sexual orientation and gender identities. There was continual reinforcement of traditional normative relationships in the language of the final outcome document, and complete refusal to acknowledge the existence of groups that do not conform to traditional gender identities and roles, or within a traditional patriarchal construct. While there is growing consensus and support for the inclusion of  explicit language relating to specific groups that face particular forms of violence, including lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LBTI) women, no agreement could be reached on this language because conservative States consistently blocked any language that highlighted the violence women and girls experience in the diversity of relationships they engage in. References to intersectionality as a basic concept for understanding how the multiple forms of discrimination women and girls face are inextricably linked to factors such as race, ethnicity, religion, health ability, status, age, class and caste, were also absent from the final outcome document.

States also failed to reach consensus on the role of families in combating violence against women and girls when conservative governments and the Vatican refused to recognize that diverse forms of families even exist. However the regressive statement that the “traditional family” must be protected, was met with heavy criticism from several progressive governments and did result in the deletion of the proposed paragraph. There was also strong opposition to language suggesting that rape includes forced behaviour by a woman’s husband or intimate partner. Although some states strived to retain intimate partner violence, a term that more adequately captures the range of relationships and spaces where violence and abuse take place, in the end it was left out of the Agreed Conclusions.

What does this mean for women’s human rights as we move towards 2015?

Over 190 country delegations and 6000 representatives from civil society attended this year’s CSW in New York. Shareen Gokal of AWID, believes that this year’s CSW helped strengthen the women’s rights movement because it provided an opportunity for women’s rights organisations and activists to share experiences multi-generationally, across boundaries, countries, sectors and issues.  It provided an opportunity for rich exchanges and learning between experienced activists and those newer to the CSW process. The diversity of the space created at the CSW enabled advocates who traversed the political spectrum to work with ally States to advance negotiations, to deal with strong opposition, to monitor the types of arguments and tactics being used, and where possible, to counter and challenge these with rights-based perspectives.

While feminists and women’s rights advocates agree that they did not get all the language they had hoped for, they welcome the CSW57 Agreed Conclusions as an achievement in the face of the very strong fundamentalist backlash. This bodes well as women’s rights advocates now work to influence the Post 2015 Development Agenda and ensure that violence against women and girls is a priority for the achievement of sustainable development, peace and security, human rights, economic growth and social cohesion.

A fuller version of this article was first published by AWID in Friday Files, In the coming weeks AWID will be publishing more pieces exploring the key dynamics and issues at stake in promoting women's human rights.


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