U.N. body agrees on women's rights policy, skirting sexual politics

UNITED NATIONS Fri Mar 15, 2013 10:25pm EDT

Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of United Nations (UN) Women Michelle Bachelet (C) of Chile dances with women upon her arrival at Ushafa pottery village during an official visit to Nigeria's capital Abuja January 11, 2013. Picture taken January 11, 2013. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of United Nations (UN) Women Michelle Bachelet (C) of Chile dances with women upon her arrival at Ushafa pottery village during an official visit to Nigeria's capital Abuja January 11, 2013. Picture taken January 11, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A U.N. policy-making body agreed upon a declaration Friday urging an end to violence against women and girls 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 of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, but did not block adoption of the 18-page text.

While the declaration of the commission, created in 1946 for the advancement of women, is non-binding, diplomats and rights activists say it carries enough global weight to pressure countries to improve the lives of women and girls.

"People worldwide expected action, and we didn't fail them. Yes, we did it," Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile and head of U.N. Women, which supports the commission, told delegates on Friday after two weeks on negotiations on the text.

Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the International Women's Health Coalition, said the declaration was a victory for women and girls, but could have gone further to recognize violence faced by lesbians and transgender people.

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

Earlier in the talks Iran, Russia, the Vatican and others had threatened to derail the declaration with concerns 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 on Friday, Egypt's delegation said it would not stand in the way of the declaration for the sake of women's empowerment. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Islamists had warned on Thursday that the declaration could destroy society.

'FREE OF FEAR'

The United States welcomed the declaration but lamented that references were not made to lesbian and transgender women and that the term "intimate partner violence" was not used to capture the range of relationships in which abuse can happen.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice last week boasted that all 50 U.S. states have laws treating date rape or spousal rape as equal to that of rape by a stranger. In contrast 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.

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

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

Germany's U.N. Ambassador Peter Wittig said the declaration was balanced and strong. "It sends a much-needed message to the women around the world: your rights are crucial," he posted on Twitter (@GermanyUN)

The full declaration of the Commission on the Status of Women can be seen at: www.unwomen.org

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Todd Eastham)

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