UNITED NATIONS – Muslim and Western nations on Friday overcame deep divisions to agree on a historic U.N. declaration setting out a code of conduct for combatting violence against women.
Iran, Libya, Sudan and other Muslim nations agreed to language stating that violence against women and girls could not be justified by “any custom, tradition or religious consideration.”
Western nations, particularly those in Scandinavia, toned down demands for references to gay rights and sexual health rights to secure the accord after two weeks of tense negotiations between the 193 member states of the United Nations.
Some 6,000 nongovernment groups were in New York for the Commission on the Status of Women meeting. Cheers and wild applause erupted when the accord was announced at U.N. headquarters late Friday.
When the commission took up the issue a decade ago, governments were unable to reach agreement. Differences over sex education, a woman’s right to reproductive health and demands for an exception for traditional, cultural and religious practices stymied an accord.
Michelle Bachelet, executive director of U.N. Women, said it had been a “historic” meeting. It was announced straight afterward that Bachelet would be leaving her post. She is expected to return to politics in Chile, where she has already served as president.
Bachelet is widely expected by Chileans to be a candidate in the Nov. 17 presidential election. Recent polls have said that 54 percent of voters support her, and the center-left opposition views her as its best chance to defeat conservative President Sebastian Pinera and regain power.
Carlos Larrain, head of the conservative National Renewal Party, said a Bachelet candidacy “will be healthy for the system” by giving voters a choice between the social welfare policies of her previous term and those of Pinera’s government.
Chile is respected for its fast-growing economy and transparent institutions, but it also has the worst inequality rate among the 34 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and widespread protests of inequalities have harried the administrations of both Bachelet and her successor, Pinera.
Iran, the Vatican, Russia and several Muslim states had formed what some diplomats had called “an unholy alliance” to weaken a statement calling for tough global standards on violence against women and girls. They had objected to references to abortion rights and language suggesting that rape includes forcible behavior by a woman’s husband or partner.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood called the proposed U.N. document un-Islamic and warned it would lead to the “complete degradation of society.”
Egypt’s speech at the opening of the commission meeting set off a storm in the women’s rights community. The speech was delivered March 4 by Pakinam el-Sharqawi, an aide to President Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood. In it, el-Sharqawi praised Egypt’s new constitution as protective of women’s rights, to the dismay of members of the delegation who have been sharply critical of the charter. Her speech caused some in the delegation to walk out.
Opposition activists say Egypt’s new charter has an Islamist slant, undermines women’s rights and denies them equality while ignoring their political rights. Rights groups also worry that the new charter has granted religious authorities the right to review laws to ensure they are in line with Islamic laws, which they say may further undermine their rights.
Violence against women has also been on the rise in Egypt, particularly during political protests. Some suspect the attacks are an organized campaign to curb women’s participation in public life after they played an integral role during the protests against former autocratic President Hosni Mubarak.
The Brotherhood urged women’s rights groups not to be “lured by phony calls for civilized behavior and by misleading and destructive processes.” Libya’s top cleric also raised similar concerns, rejecting the document for violating Islamic teachings.
With Norway and Denmark leading a European alliance with North American nations calling for tough language, it had appeared the meeting would fail right up to the final hours. The last attempt by the U.N. commission to agree to a declaration on violence against women in 2003 ended in failure.
“The commission urges states to strongly condemn all forms of violence against women and girls and to refrain from invoking any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination,” said the accord.
It added that states should “devote particular attention to abolishing practices and legislation that discriminate against women and girls, or perpetuate and condone violence against them.” Countries should “address and eliminate as a matter of priority domestic violence,” it said.