The last time the United Nations tried to get all of its members to agree that violence against women was a really bad thing, it was 2003, and it failed.
Last week, the UN finally succeeded. But not without deep and bitter argument and a good deal of compromise at the expense of gay rights and women raped by their husbands. And of course, what the declaration on violence against women might actually deliver is a question many of those celebrating might prefer to put off asking for a while.
Still, what is now enshrined as a non-binding, ten-point United Nations declaration is that violence against women cannot be justified by any “custom, tradition or religious consideration” which would seem to have some specific practices in its sights – genital mutilation, forced marriage, not permitting women to work or travel or be raped, assaulted or killed for their political beliefs or because they are women!
And the declaration outlines a code of conduct to combat violence against women and girls that, one assumes will be hard to impose on nations disinclined to believe in the right of women to live freely and safely.
But still, even in its watered down state, it’s better than nothing.
It’s just way too late for way too many women who’ve been raped, murdered, mutilated and otherwise maltreated precisely because of custom, tradition or religious belief.
Amongst them is Malala Yousafzai, now 15 years old, who was shot in the head by the Taliban for promoting education for girls in Pakistan. She survived and is again studying in defiance of the Taliban.
But a 23-year-old Indian woman known as Nirbhaya, didn’t survive. Nirbhaya was gang raped on a moving bus in Delhi last December and died of her injuries. One of those alleged to have taken part in the assault, last week committed suicide in jail and the others are to face trial.
But rape is a threat Indian women face daily. For some, it’s more than a threat. It’s an all too horrifying reality. Heartbreaking though it is, ABC correspondent Zoe Daniels’ report on the sexual violence faced by Indian women, for Foreign Correspondent is a must see.
Even though the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women detailed these cases to the UN’s 193 member nations, agreement didn’t come easily.
Iran, the Vatican, Russia and a handful of Muslim states formed what some called an “unholy alliance” to fight as a bloc against references in the declaration to abortion “rights” and acknowledgment of rape in marriage.
Libya dissociated itself from the document completely. But in a sign of change under its new leadership, it at least didn’t block consensus on the final document.
Egypt pushed for a clause to allow each country to adapt and implement the declaration in a way that would suit its culture. In other words, it wanted an “opt out” clause. Though it didn’t succeed, nor did it block the declaration.
But the problem with declarations of this sort is implementation as Egypt’s government is about to find out if, in fact it is at all interested in supporting real change for Egyptian women.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which has close ties to both the Egyptian Parliament and the countries President, issued this warning: “This declaration, if ratified, would lead to complete disintegration of society, and would certainly be the final step in the intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries, eliminating the moral specificity that helps preserve cohesion of Islamic societies.”
Declaring a woman’s right to work, use contraception and live free of the threat of rape or other physical assault is a bridge too far for the Brotherhood. What’s wrong with the status quo asks the Brotherhood?
According to the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, 83 per cent of Egyptian women have confronted sexual harassment. 62 per cent of Egyptian men admitted they’d sexually harassed women and 53 per cent of men blamed women for encouraging their abuse.
Egyptian men are by no means the only offenders.
The World Bank estimates that more women between the ages of 15 and 44, world wide “die in rapes and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria combined.”
These are startling statistics. Will this declaration make any difference?
The Head of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, Michelle Bachelet clearly thinks what’s important is getting the UN member states to “sign on” to any degree of in-principle change, so long as it’s not backwards. She knows how hard it is to get nations with diverse religious, cultural and political backgrounds to agree on anything, but especially women’s rights.
Last year she was slammed for agreeing to a watering down of the term “reproductive rights” to “reproductive health” because of pressure from the Vatican, a non member permanent observer at the UN.
“Language is important but not enough,” she told The Guardian newspaper. “You can have the best language document but what we need is action. We don’t need another document to put on the shelf; we need commitments.”
That’s why in the end there is no reference to lesbian and transgender women or “intimate partner violence”. Michelle Bachelet, the former President of Chile, wanted as many of the 193 member nations as possible to sign on and nudge forward the gains enshrined in the many previous declarations on the rights of women.
Now of course the ideal will find itself on a collision course with reality and women will have to look to their mostly male leaders to have the guts to tackle the violence they often experience.
Some 6,000 observers celebrated in New York when the declaration passed. Few of them would believe that the recalcitrant nations that “signed on” will do anything other than file the declaration under “i” for ignore.
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*Monica Attard OAM is a five-time Walkley award-winning Australian journalist – including the Gold Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism 1991. She was the host of the ABC’s PM, the World Today and Media Watch. She spent 28 years at the ABC, leaving to start up The Global Mail where she was, until recently, the Managing Editor. In 1997, Monica published a book entitled Russia: Which Way Paradise? documenting her time there as a foreign correspondent. You can follow her on Twitter: @attardmon.