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The UN Commission On The Status Of Women Unmasks Equality’s Enemies

Monday 1 April 2013, by siawi3

Source: The Guardian, Monday 18 March 2013

Jill Filipovic,

There might not be many things the Vatican and the Muslim Brotherhood agree on, but one is keeping women ’in their place’

Who doesn’t want to end violence against women?

More than a few nations and conservative organizations, apparently. Under the cover of culture, religion and tradition, they have attempted to impede consensus on a simple agreement to solidify the rights of women to be free from abuse. With violence against women endemic – one in three women worldwide will be on the receiving end of violence in her lifetime – appeals to culture or religion don’t just ring hollow; they’re reckless, cruel and expose how brutally misogynist our world remains.

The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women brought hundreds of international leaders to New York to discuss strategies for ending violence against women. After two weeks of debate, it concluded with a communiqué stating the principles agreed upon at the gathering – something it failed to do last year. (Disclosure: I have done some consulting work for UN Women.)

The principles initially proposed by UN Women head Michelle Bachelet were not particularly radical. They simply asserted that governments have an obligation to make sure women in their countries are protected, that women in every corner of the world have a right to bodily integrity, and that religion, custom or tradition are not excuses for governments to skirt their obligations to protect all their citizens.

In other words: women are people, and governments must take reasonable steps to ensure that women are not beaten, raped and abused with impunity.

Nonetheless, many of the usual suspects (and some new ones) were unwilling to adopt the “women are people, not punching bags” framework. The Vatican, Iran and Russia tried to strip out the language that would block governments from using the “it’s our custom/religion/tradition” excuse. They also hedged at language suggesting that a husband doesn’t have the right to rape his wife.

I remain flummoxed as to why the Vatican, Russia and Iran want to publicly associate raping and abusing women to their own traditions and religious beliefs, though I suppose there’s something to be said for putting honesty ahead of basic human rights.

But here is the honest truth: systematic violence against women maintains the male monopoly on political, economic and social power. When women live in fear of violence – when women live with actualviolence – it maintains a system of free female labor within the “traditional” family, and keeps half of the population from competing with men for paid work or social capital. Women, as it turns out, are just as smart and capable and hardworking as men, which is why keeping women disempowered and vulnerable requires large-scale coercion and violence.

It’s not that misogynist governments and organizations support violence against women, exactly, although some of them do. It’s that they directly benefit from the sexist system that violence against women enables.

While the Holy See, the Iranians and the Russians assert the God-given rights of husbands to rape their wives, more women between the ages of 15 and 44 are killed by violence every year than by malaria, HIV, cancer, accidents and war combined. Luckily, after international pressure and outrage from women around the world, the final document signed on 15 March included basic language protecting women’s rights. But it shouldn’t have to take worldwide indignation to push countries to agree to take steps to end violence.

It’s not just Russia, Iran and the Vatican that are alarmed at the prospect of gender equality and women living lives free of violence. They found an ally in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which issued one of the most odious – and telling – responses to the CSW, claiming:

“This declaration, if ratified, would lead to the complete disintegration of society.”

Why? Because, according to the Brotherhood, the proposed language granted women basic sexual rights and bodily autonomy; gave wives the right to report marital rape and requires law enforcement “to deal husbands punishments similar to those prescribed for raping or sexually harassing a stranger”; required equal inheritance rights for men and women; replaced “guardianship with partnership, and full sharing of roles within the family between men and women such as: spending, child care and home chores”; recognized the rights of marginalized groups like lesbians, trans women and sex workers; and removed “the need for a husband’s consent in matters like: travel, work, or use of contraception”.

American pro-life groups also agree that conservative ideology should trump anti-violence work: they’ve suggested that the CSW agreement should be torpedoed because it has the audacity to say that women have a right to their own bodies. So women in Egypt, the US and around the world are working to secure their own rights, and speaking up to say, “I’m a human being, too.” And again, male leaders slap them down.

This isn’t a “religious problem” or a “cultural problem”, even though culture and religion are routinely invoked to justify a hatred of women that crosses over oceans and unites belief systems. This is a misogyny problem.

The divide over women’s rights fundamentally comes down to the question of whether you think women are equally as human as men, or whether you think we’re a sub-category of person, designed to serve men’s needs and desires, and unworthy of protection from humanity’s most awful impulses.

Some 603 million women live in countries where domestic violence remains legal. Three million women and girls are subjected to genital cutting every year, with 10% of them dying from the practice. More than 60 million girls are married as child brides every year.

Hopefully, the signed CSW agreement is the first step to ending some of that pervasive violence. But if there’s a lesson to be taken away from the CSW negotiation process, it’s that governments and groups from diverse corners of the world have a vested interest in maintaining gender inequality. They’re willing to tolerate violence, and even give it the go-ahead, when they realize that violence is necessary to maintaining society-wide male dominance.

Culture, religion and tradition are all very important to billions of people. But none of those things is static: we determine what our culture looks like, what our traditions are and what we believe. Many of our male leaders apparently want misogyny and the gender-based violence that perpetuates it to be cornerstones of their ideal cultures and belief systems.

Thankfully, those men don’t have a monopoly on the truth or the future, and there are billions of men and women who have a very different, more egalitarian vision. For us, this CSW session marks a bittersweet victory. We won this round. But we’re going back to our corners with the knowledge that there’s a large and varied group of people who don’t believe we’re entitled to basic human rights – and who can’t wait for their next shot at knocking us down.