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Religion, Culture, Tradition and Fundamentalisms at the UN

Monday 1 April 2013, by siawi3

Source: AWID, Spotlight: March 2013

CSW57 Special Focus on :

Religion, Culture, Tradition and Fundamentalisms at the UN

Negotiation to reach consensus is always a difficult process, but reaching one in a UN system which has become increasingly divided and polarized with States whose leadership espoused positions which are essentially anti-human rights and freedoms, made many activists wonder whether an agreed conclusion which actually held the line and made some progress was actually possible.

At the 57th CSW, the Holy See’s representatives were joined by state groupings which included Egypt, Russia, Iran, Malta, Hungary, Qatar, Sudan, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and some members of the African Group among others, fought back to eliminate any progressive language that would recognize reproductive and sexuality rights or recognize violence against women as gender-based violence, and struggled to include the concept of state sovereignty, which Egypt sought to insert as a qualification. The failed amendment would have asserted that each country can implement the document in accordance with local customs, traditions and laws. However, they were not successful in any of these attempts.

The fact that last year’s stalemate was not repeated was in itself an achievement, considering some of the progress that has been made. The use of the term families instead of family was an important amendment introduced by some Latin American states, although a more progressive phrasing referring to families in all their diversity and forms was rejected. As a result of the efforts of key delegations that supported the concerted lobbying of the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRD-IC) and their committed allies, for the first time the Agreed conclusions included the express requirement that states support and protect those working to eliminate VAW, including WHRDs. A key element that was also retained was language reaffirming States’ duty to protect and fulfil reproductive rights in accordance with the Programme of Action of the ICPD and the Beijing Platform of Action and the outcome documents of their review conferences. Affirmation of reproductive health included explicit mention of access to emergency contraception and to safe abortion (where available under national law) for survivors of VAWG, and comprehensive sexuality education was also notably included, as was language urging Governments to develop policies and programmes toward “the elimination of child, early and forced marriage”, a sticking point in last year’s negotiations due to the definition of childhood ending at menstruation in some legal contexts. The Commission also retained broader language that urged States to strongly condemn all forms of VAWG and “refrain from invoking any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations...”, though efforts to include the term “harmful” to qualify customary, traditional or religious practices were unsuccessful.

Yet, just as some progressive language was retained or insertion of new rights-based language was achieved, there were serious disappointments as well. Among them, it was notable that not one of seven different amendments referencing sexual orientation and gender identity survived into the final Agreed Conclusions. Efforts to include amendments that referenced intimate partner violence (IPV) to broaden the sphere from domestic violence failed, and strong opposition toward language acknowledging that rape includes marital rape or rape by an intimate partner meant that neither concept was included. References to protection of sex workers as a group specifically experiencing violence were also dropped. These among other losses in the final draft indicate key areas of contention in future negotiations, just as rights-based forces must continue the struggle to hold the line on hard-won gains in increasingly polarized negotiations at the international, regional and local levels.

As fundamentalist forces negotiated and lobbied to stall progress at the CSW, in the meantime in Geneva on March 15th, a group of nine states (Bangladesh, Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco, Qatar, the Russian Federation, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe) tabled a draft resolution on the “Protection of the Family” which sought to insert the concept of the traditional (that is, patriarchal and heteronormative) family as a subject of human rights protection. At the last moment, Egypt withdrew the resolution, after Latin American and EU States rallied to amend the text in ways that would respond to concerns that the resolution did not ensure respect for the rights of individuals in diverse kinds of families. While this is a success for the moment, and some important gains were also made at the 57th CSW in spite of fundamentalist machinations, it is imperative that we bear in mind these are not isolated events. Moving forward, we must prepare for all the post-2015 processes (SDGs and MDGs included) in light of the trends, circumstances and results of the last CSW and previous international convenings. Similar contentious issues will emerge in those venues, relating to reproductive rights, sexuality rights, gender-based violence, recognition of diversity in family forms, and the utilization of religion, culture and tradition to undermine women’s rights. Constant vigilance is critical, as is the organizing, advocacy and solidarity of actors confronting religious fundamentalist obstructionism. In light of the post-2015 and other international processes ahead, the advocacy and solidarity of rights-based actors must be fostered and deepened.

Please see the AWID Friday File “A Step Forward amid Strong Opposition to Women’s Human Rights at the 57th Commission on the Status of Women” for further discussion of the outcomes of this year’s negotiations.

Also see the following statements from women’s rights activists with regards to some States’ regressive positions: the statement from the Arab Caucus and a joint statement of feminist and women’s organizations from a diversity of global regions. AWID’s Talking Points on Religion, Culture and Tradition are also available here and CSW Special Focus section is here.