5 April 2013

Africa: Women's Rights After Csw57 - a Battle Won, a War Continues


Women all over the world fight for equality, recognition and safety every day.

These fights - taken up by mothers trying to raise healthy families, young women who want access to higher education, girls in conflict areas collecting water - are often invisible, hidden, not seen by the outside world.

But these daily battles are hard fought, these victories are hard won, and they are remembered and celebrated all over the world: in the corridors of offices, in school classrooms, in personal diaries and in conversations with friends.

In contrast to these individual battles, women also come together - as NGOs, as feminists, as individuals - to make a difference on a global stage.

In March, women from around the world came together in New York to advocate as a group for their right to be equal and free from violence. And, after two long weeks, they were celebrating another victory.

Mobilising voices

The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW57) met from 4-11 March to discuss the steps that states need to take to eliminate violence against women and girls.

The goal of the session was to develop a set of 'Agreed Conclusions' that commit states to taking meaningful and tangible action in tackling these serious human rights violations.

Although the discussions started with a progressive draft written by the CSW Bureau, the negotiations that followed were difficult.

Many countries seemed to want to roll back the rights of women and girls, and challenged the inclusion of agreed terms such as 'gender equality' and the universal applicability of human rights standards. However, many allies across the globe fought hard to ensure that women's and girls' rights were recognised and protected.

While consensus could be found on a majority of issues, there was not time to close the gap on some of the more difficult issues - such as sexual rights and recognition of the diversity of families - by the closing of the session. After many hours of long and sometimes challenging negotiations, the chair, Marjon V. Kamara, introduced a 'Chair's Text' which contained all the agreed paragraphs and suggested drafts of the outstanding paragraphs, based on the negotiations.

With a vast majority of the text agreed, states were asked to accept this version of Agreed Conclusions. All - bar a very small number - welcomed the text and commended the efforts of all states to develop a strong conclusion.

Agreed conclusions

The Agreed Conclusions were strong. Consensus is always hard to achieve but there were some tough asks. Member-states were called upon to provide accessible and affordable healthcare services, including sexual and reproductive health services such as emergency contraception and safe abortion for victims and survivors of violence.

There was a resolution to end harmful practices perpetuated in the context of negative culture and traditions - specifically for an end to child, early and forced marriage, which is an increasing problem in many countries.

There was also an emphasis on the specific types of service that different groups of women may need, and how they can protect women even more.

States were urged to focus services based on the diverse experiences of women and girls, including indigenous women, elderly women, female migrant workers, women with disabilities, women living with HIV, and women who are held in state custody.

Recognition was given to the role of governments in developing strategies to deliver evidence-based comprehensive sexuality education.

A new emphasis was given to how women need to be protected from people in authority. States were pressed to prevent, investigate, and punish acts of violence against women and girls that are perpetrated by people in positions of authority, such as teachers and religious leaders.

The Agreed Conclusions also recognised the links between sexual and reproductive health and rights and violence against women, and the link between HIV and violence against women.

They condemned and called for action to prevent violence against women in healthcare settings, including forced sterilisation, and called on states to abolish legislation, policies, and programmes that discriminate against women or have a discriminatory impact on women.

The Agreed Conclusions broke new ground on a range of issues. For the first time, states were called on to provide emergency contraception to victims of sexual violence.

The role of new media in the campaign against violence against women was also recognised, as was the impact of climate change of women.

Additionally, the obligations of businesses in addressing violence against women was explicitly covered, through calling attention to their role in supporting women workers who have experienced domestic violence.

But there were some losses. There was still no consensus on the need to address violence against women based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity, or the need to address the violence experienced by sex workers.

Many of the supportive states wanted to include reference to "intimate partner violence", to reflect those women and girls that suffer violence in unmarried or non-cohabiting relationships. This, too, was unsuccessful.

Overall, though, CSW57 was a success and landmark gains were achieved. After the failure to reach Agreed Conclusions in CSW56 in 2012, it was positive to see that there was a commitment from all sides in the end to take action on violence against women and girls.

States, NGOs and individual activists fought hard to speak up for women and women's rights, especially those vulnerable groups that were not able to speak for themselves.

Despite the resistance from conservative states to derail negotiations, the commitment and energy to strengthen the rights and protections for women and girls all over the world prevailed. We, shoulder to shoulder with women from all over the world, have a lot to be proud of and a future to be hopeful for.

The final Agreed Conclusions can be found here.

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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