6 March 2013

Africa: Women's Rights in Csw57 - No More Trade-Offs or Compromises

Photo: Ky Chung
Women celebrating International Women's Day in Cote d'Ivoire (file photo).


Let's start with some of the things you may take for granted. Freedom to walk on the streets, freedom to marry who you want to, protect your body and be safe.

How would you feel if you were chatting away to your female friend on the bus and a group of men started attacking her? How would you feel if you were married and your husband didn't allow you to choose when to have sex or become pregnant? We would be united in our condemnation or say that these scenarios are ridiculous.

The sad fact remains that they are everyday news. But these issues are not just for the campaigners, charities or just for women and girls. It's for all of us. This is about protecting the liberties, freedoms and rights of our wives, daughters, sisters and mothers.

Depressing statistics

Time and again we see the incontrovertible statistics which show that in countries and regions where sexual health services are poor, fertility is higher, maternal and child mortality are greater, educational opportunity is diminished, and economic prospects for women and for whole countries are vastly depressed.

Why? The rate and frequency of violence against women has a lot to do with this. In Colombia for example, a woman is killed by a current or former partner every six days. In Somalia, 98% of women have undergone female genital mutilation. In Amhara, Ethiopia, 50% of girls are married by the time they are 15 years old.

We are not seeing the rate of improvement that we would like to. If anything, abuses are intensifying and rights are weakening. We are better informed about these abuses and public outrage clearly shows that these violent acts are unacceptable in any modern society.

This has been demonstrated by recent reports on sexual violence in India, Egypt and South Africa. But the reports keep coming in. There are laws in place, national ones are complemented by international ones, so why are they not working?

Committee on the Status of Women

This is where the United Nations meeting of Member States known as the Committee on the Status of Women (CSW) makes a difference. Every year, representatives of Member States meet at the UN in New York to evaluate progress on gender equality, set global standards and formulate concrete policies to promote women's empowerment worldwide.

The outcome of the meeting is a set of "Agreed Conclusions" that are passed by consensus by all Member States. This year their theme is eliminating violence against women.

Given the UN's influence, this is a key body that can ensure that countries are doing their best in protecting and advancing the rights of women and girls everywhere.

But not every group is pursuing the same objectives. Last year, there was a great of deal of lobbying from the conservative and anti-choice movements. They were certainly very vocal. Unfortunately, they were also very successful.

Interestingly, the real sticking points weren't even controversial issues like abortion or issues related to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community.

Instead, they used a range of statements to suggest that wording should move away from previously agreed UN terms on gender equality, reproductive health as a human right, early and forced marriages and traditional harmful practices such as female genital mutilation.

Why does this language matter? It matters because an international consensus is needed on terminology to ensure that there are greater, not lesser, protections globally which can be filtered down to the local context.

Dealing with phrasing "child marriage" provides a fitting example: there is no single definition of the term "child" worldwide. In some countries this can mean the marriage of a girl who has not yet reached puberty. Given this, "early and forced marriage" is the preferred term as this covers girls who are married between their first period and the age of 18 so they can be recognised as victims of violence, not seen as willing brides.

Opposing forces

In 2012, the opposition were very active in restricting and limiting women's rights. So much so, that they completely derailed discussions and no formal "agreed conclusions" were made.

For example, they argued against the use of "gender equity" and restricted reproductive rights. Last year, these positions were so extreme that there was no meaningful outcome to the meeting and this silenced many moderate countries at the UN table.

CSW57 takes place from 4 March and we hope that history doesn't repeat itself. The IPPF is leading a coalition with Oxfam, ActionAid UK, Womankind, Gender and Development Network and the Orchid Project to promote the connections between violence against women, development and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Much work has been done behind the scenes and before the event to enable delegations, governments, UN missions and other groups working on the ground who are attending this meeting to understand fully the role of language and to speak up when and where needed.

Opposition is not new for us. We see it in our work every day and everywhere we work. Groups opposed to gender and sexual and reproductive health and rights work at national, regional and global levels to advance their agendas.

Some are moderate, others are fanatical. They are driven by religious conviction, patriarchy, conservatism, conventionality and they use a range of tactics. We believe that with strong political, financial, legislative and popular support for gender equality, sexual and reproductive health rights, and a reduction in stigma and discrimination, opposition groups will become increasingly marginalised.

The impact of our actions is critical. Stronger and universally agreed protections for women will boost their empowerment, improve their health, and help them to participate fully politically, educationally, socially and economically.

When women are protected, they will live for longer, make informed choices because they know their rights and take control of their own lives. Let's not forget that women and girls are vital in the fight against poverty, as well as in the fight for peace.

There is no time to lose focus or to falter. We can't afford any more trade-offs or compromises. We are hopeful, that with our support and by being better informed, Member States will not sit on the side-lines. Instead, they will be stronger and more confident than ever before.

An Ethiopian national, Mr Melesse studied economics at the Catholic University in Louvain, Belgium. He began his career in family planning and reproductive health in 1984 and worked at US-based reproductive health NGO Pathfinder International and IPPF before becoming Director of IPPF's Africa Region.

He assumed the position of Director-General on September 1 2011.

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