As the crowd rejoiced in Saint Peter's Square over the election of a new pope, the Vatican was at work resisting women's rights at the United Nations. The discussions over the Commission of the Status of Women agreement were entering their final phase, among fears that delegates wouldn't be able to agree on a final communiqué, like last year, or that its content would water down women's rights and severely compromise already agreed upon commitments. What is making it so difficult to agree on a progressive text seeking to eliminate violence against women and girls?
“It's 2013, really, not one century ago,” Cynthia Rothschild, a consultant for COC Netherlands, told me as she collapsed into an armchair at the UN café, at the end of a very long day and two very long weeks spent advocating for recognition of violence related to sexual orientation and gender identity. “I think there's terror over women's sexuality, that the idea of women's sexual freedom is completely terrifying to many governments.”
What has been taking place at CSW is all about erasure. A cross-regional group of 17 countries, led by the Vatican, followed by Iran and Russia, has been trying to erase language designed to fight violence against women across the world. The mention of women's sexual and reproductive rights: Erase. Femicide, the killing of a woman because she is a woman: Delete. “Intimate partner violence”, a phrase that would protect women better than “domestic violence”, because it covers a broader range of relationships: Delete. Violence against women human rights defenders: No. Violence against women based on their sexual orientation or gender identity: Delete. It doesn't exist. Or, as Cynthia puts it “Some States have such an investment in not recognising that this violence exists because they don't want to recognise the lives of this group of people.” Behind each excluded phrase, forms of violence are being voluntarily ignored and perpetrated: one of the reasons why Iran wants to delete any reference to “early and forced marriage” is because the legal age to marry there is 13. Conservative entities have also been contesting the issue of' cultural or religious rights – claiming that national sovereignty could prevail over international law.
Is CSW a forum for discussing women's rights only? "Geopolitical agendas are the undercurrent to everything. You think you're talking only about women's rights, but countries have all sorts of agendas at play simultaneously, like military agreements about airspace, who’s vying for a seat on the Security Council, or humanitarian aid,” says Cynthia. During this year's CSW negotiations geopolitical relations have been consolidated or reconfigured. Blocks of countries which traditionally worked together have been broken. Last year the European block split as Poland, Malta and Hungary took regressive stances. By the end of the second week this year, the CSW NGO Chair announced that Sudan and Egypt had stepped out of the African group, and might join another group (the block of Arab countries), which Sudanese NGOs denied, saying they were committed to remain a part of the African group. And ALBA countries such as Cuba and Ecuador have remained strangely quiet when it has come to opposing propositions from Russia, a close ally of their group. While some countries, like Australia, Holland and Zimbabwe have successfully integrated civil society representatives who sometimes lead the negotiations (as is the case for Turkey), when more often than not, hushed negotiations are held behind closed doors and between member States. Once again, women's rights are a bargaining chip within a wider geopolitical discussion.
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood published a statement warning that the CSW outcome document “if ratified, would lead to complete disintegration of society...” by, for example, granting women sexual freedom and reproductive rights and “granting equal rights to homosexuals.” It presented the movement for women's rights as a decadent Western preoccupation leading to immorality. Neither the Vatican nor the Muslim Brotherhood (nor the United States) have ratified CEDAW, the international bill of rights for women. Their fundamentalisms meet over the same agenda. Following the Muslim Brotherhood statement, a coalition of Arab human rights groups – from Egypt, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Tunisia – called on countries at CSW to stop using religion, culture and tradition to justify abuse of women.
“A lot of States are using religion to maintain control and flex their political power," said Shareen Gokal, of AWID, before adding: “The body is the site of control, if you lose control over women's sexuality and reproduction, then you lose control of society. That's why you see the political struggles being played out on women's bodies - in Egypt, people came together to ask for a more equal society, not for this.” Among women's rights campaigners, there's a growing sense that the actions of certain countries or entities at CSW such as Russia, Qatar and the Holy See are blocking the aspirations of the many - and also a sense that the Vatican's complete lack of legitimacy as a State needs to be denounced.
Today is the final day for negotiations and the debates have become incredibly tense over women's reproductive rights. But there is also a paragraph on national sovereignty which, if not challenged successfully, could undermine the whole text. Some delegates are becoming particularly frustrated by Iran, the Vatican and Russia blocking the discussion. There is a belief that Russia is simply trying to flex its political muscle in the international sphere to show that it is a force to be reckoned with.
What would the failure of the negotiations to reach an Agreement mean? It wouldn't necessarily indicate that UN Women has failed, say some. One UN insider told me that she believes that the greatest mistake of UN Women is to have made the outcome of CSW a measure of its own success – and to have announced, as Michelle Bachelet did at the opening press conference of CSW, a desire to seek compromise. A failure would, however, tell the world's women that we cannot take anything for granted and that some governments, under the umbrella of the UN, are ready to take us backwards when it comes to women's rights.
Coming up with an agreement which waters down women’s rights would open the door to future efforts to curtail women’s freedom that has been hard fought for over the decades. However, there is also an acute awareness that if there is an outcome document and the Agreed Conclusions contain progressive language, for words to be turned into action, the agreement needs to be accompanied by a global program of implementation and action, similar to the HIV/ AIDS program, where every member State agrees on a common strategy and budget. “The elimination of violence against women has been seen as one of the missing points from the 2015 development goals. It is the biggest impediment to development and an embarrassment to mankind,” one UN insider told me.
“Violence against women and girls is not in anyone's culture, tradition or religion. This is about power, inequality, a lack of political will and courage to work towards a better world," says Shareen Gokal, as she waits for the final outcome, hoping that political games, and agendas that have united unlikely bedfellow like the Holy See, Iran and Qatar won't prevail over the women's rights movement.