Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Gulf between the UN and Civil Society

Margaret Owen  - Widows for Peace through Democracy - 7 March 2013
We are worlds apart. Separated not just by First Avenue, but by a vast gap in beliefs, philosophy, ideas and hopes. Margaret Owen, director of an NGO, reports on the battle over the text of the Agreed Conclusions at the 57th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women
 There are more than of more than 6,000 NGOS registered as attending this 57th Session of the UN CSW - and our international NGO, Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD), is one of them. Each accredited NGO is allowed to register under its umbrella up to twenty individuals, but is only given two passes to enter the UN building, therefore hearing Government delegates speak is barely possible for most of us who have travelled miles, and spent considerable sums to get here and stay here.
There is anger amongst the women's NGO's, talking mostly to each other in the "ghetto" of the Church Centre, that lies across the road from the UN building. Here we tell the truth. Of the appalling, life-shattering tortures inflicted on women and girls of all ages, of the gang rapes of young girls, even babies, by criminal traffickers; of FGM, dowry-related acid-burning; stoning of older women accused of witchcraft. Throughout the day the eleven floors of the Church Centre are packed with meetings, with overflows in other nearby buildings.

We women want to see Governments made responsible and accountable for the rights, the very lives of their female citizens. We want to see the perpetrators of these acts punished. And we want to know that real actions are being taken to change the attitudes and the behaviour of men and boys. We demand that the stigma associated with the rape victim be transferred to the rapist, the perpetrator. We want zero tolerance of violence against women and now.

Our anger and frustration boils over when news comes back from that "other" place across the road, where a tiny minority of NGO women have managed to gain access, that delegates of countries where women are victims of extreme violence, condoned, even promoted by the State, for example, as in Iran and Afghanistan  - make glossy presentations pretending that all is getting better, and that their programmes and policies are implementing the commitments they have under the CEDAW and the Beijing PFA (Platform for Action).

Alas, however, we are worlds apart. Separated not just by First Avenue, but by a vast gap in beliefs, philosophy, ideas and hopes. Somehow we have to bridge that gap so we can properly influence our governments, make them listen to the voices of the victims, take on board their needs, their ideas, their experiences of best practices to stop this outrage.  So we have to influence the text of the draft agreed conclusions, now running into some thirty-three pages.

Our goal is to ensure that this year we can get an outcome document that does not renege, does not roll back the language concerning reproductive health rights of the BPFA and the Copenhagen Conference on Population and Development. We want a strong agreed conclusion that member States will be bound by, that spells out zero tolerance of any forms of VAWG whether in the home, the community, in a war zone, or refugee camp; that denies impunity to perpetrators, that will stop trafficking, prostitution, sexual slavery and torture.
But here is the rub. The Vatican, still up to its usual tricks -not deterred by the fact there is no sitting Holy Father - has got into bed with some strange companions, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Malta from the Europe block (often nicknamed the Vatican in Vacation), and Sudan, to object to references to reproductive health rights. Rather than "reaffirming" the BPFA, it offers instead the ambiguous but negative "recalls".  Russia, Bangladesh, Yemen, the UAR,  Saudi Arabia and another six countries have yesterday formed a new block to strengthen their aim to withdraw from some of the established text on sexuality, and reproductive health services. References in the text to tradition, custom and religion never to justify violence to women has attracted many deletions and additions.
The big exception is Norway. Their Ministers speech was brilliant and compelling. No shifting around the issue. She declared  " VAW is a global disgrace. VAW is not about culture, not about religion, it is about power, inequality and lack political will. Let us start at the top, with our own political leaders, mainly men, and demand action."

The text of the draft agreed conclusions we are all working on can change from day to day. The hard copy I am looking at is a mess of deletions and addition, brackets and references. We heard this evening that tomorrow there will be a new format, with an executive summary, easier to work on. Still there are eight days to go, with negotiations going on within and between the different blocks often through the night. There is a very well funded opposition to the commitments and message of Beijing.

We cannot bear to consider the possibility that this year, as in 2011 and in 2012, there might be no outcome document. But rather nothing, than one that is weak and withdraws from women the gains made, at least on paper.

The women delegates of, for example, Afghanistan, Egypt and Iran may declare unchallenged, in the UN building, that their governments respect women's status and progress, is being made. But we, in our restricted place across the road, listen in grief and pity to accounts of rape, sexual slavery, be headings of women activists and human rights defenders; of women imprisoned for fleeing forced marriage, of widow abuse, and of honour killings disguised as suicide. And of young women activists stripped and sexually assaulted in Tahir Square, Cairo. Of what is really happening to the women of Libya and Syria. Rape may be a weapon of war, but women's bodies are being targeted in many countries, post conflict, and during revolution, and where there is no war.

We must get a good agreement through. The UK is determined to keep to where we are, and use all its influence with other blocks and countries to get the right  consensus. As member States pontificate, many mouthing platitudes, women and girls are dying, or if not dead, destroyed.

The priority theme this year is Prevention and Elimination of Violence to Women and Girls (VAWG). 70 per cent of the world's women have suffered violence.  We cannot betray the women and girls of the world. We must get the outcome document they need and deserve. In the long list of acts of violence against women and girls, it will refer to the systematic, widespread, extreme but hidden violence targeting widows. Widows as young as twelve years old. If we get this, my trip here to New York will have been worth while.

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