UN body agrees on women's rights policy

Updated: Saturday, 16 Mar 2013 19:07

A United Nations policy-making body has agreed on a declaration urging an end to violence against women and girls.

It comes despite concerns from conservative Muslim countries and the Vatican about references to women's sexual and reproductive rights.

Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Libya, Nigeria and Sudan, along with Honduras and the Vatican, expressed reservations about the declaration.

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Islamists had warned on Thursday that the declaration could destroy society.

In the end the countries did not block adoption of the 18-page text.

The declaration of the commission, which was created in 1946 for the advancement of women, is non-binding.

But diplomats and rights activists say it carries enough global weight to pressure countries to improve the lives of women and girls.

Earlier in the talks Iran, Russia, the Vatican and others had threatened to derail the declaration.

Their concerns were about references such as access to emergency contraception, abortion and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, activists said.

A proposed amendment by Egypt, that would have allowed states to avoid implementing the declaration if they clashed with national laws, religious or cultural values, failed.

Some diplomats said it would have undermined the whole document.

But yesterday, Egypt's delegation said it would not stand in the way of the declaration for the sake of women's empowerment.

Former president of Chile and head of UN Women Michelle Bachelet said: "People worldwide expected action, and we didn't fail them. Yes, we did it."

Ms Bachelet has stepped down from her UN post to campaign again for Chile's presidential election in November. 

Director of advocacy and policy at the International Women's Health Coalition Shannon Kowalski said the declaration was a victory for women and girls.

She said it could have gone further to recognise violence faced by lesbians and transgender people.

Ms Kowalski said: "For the first time, they agreed to make sure that women who have been raped can get critical health care services, like emergency contraception and safe abortion."

"Governments have agreed to take concrete steps to end violence," she added.

Meanwhile, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood decried the idea of allowing women to prosecute their husbands for rape or sexual harassment.

Last year, disagreements over sexual and reproductive rights issues prevented the commission from agreeing upon a declaration of a theme of empowering rural women.

The commission was also unable to reach a deal a decade ago when it last focused on the theme of ending violence against women and girls.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said states now had a responsibility to turn the 2013 declaration into reality.

Mr Ban said: "Violence against women is a heinous human rights violation, global menace, a public health threat and a moral outrage."

"No matter where she lives, no matter what her culture, no matter what her society, every woman and girl is entitled to live free of fear," he added.