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Global showdown at UN for women's rights as advances falter in wartime

U.N. talks expose religious, cultural, and political divisions at heart of women's rights.

By Colum Lynch

March 19, 2024

Credits @FFHR.CZ

The United Nations served as a global town square this month for a series of roiling diplomatic, political, religious, and cultural battles over women’s rights, as women from around the world gathered at headquarters for a conference of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.

Israeli and Palestinian diplomats brought large high-level delegations to New York to highlight sexual crimes against women and girls in the ongoing conflict in Gaza. Russia and the United States skirmished over the impact sanctions have on the plight of impoverished women, while Ukraine proposed amendments underscoring the need to address conflict related sexual violence, and Saudi Arabia recommended language addressing the use of “starvation as a method of warfare,” a likely bid to end Israel’s blockade in Gaza.  

In closed door negotiations, global diplomats are trying to hammer out an agreement on a 36-page draft declaration outlining the path to achieve gender equality at a time when indicators have been trending down. The official theme of the session — which is scheduled to conclude on March 22 — is titled “Accelerating the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls by addressing poverty and strengthening institutions and financing with a gender perspective.”

Today, some 10.3% of all women live in extreme poverty, and women make about 51 cents for each dollar earned by men, according to a report published in advance of the session by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. About $360 billion per year is needed to achieve gender equality targets outlined in the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, including ending poverty and hunger by 2030, an objective that is all but certain to be unmet.

“In conflict zones around the globe, women and girls are suffering most from wars waged by men,” Guterres said in an opening address to the commission, noting that women were largely absent from peace talks in Ethiopia, Sudan, Myanmar, and Libya. “Many women and girls are facing a war on their fundamental rights at home and in their communities.”

“The patriarchy is far from vanquished,” he added. “It is regaining ground. Autocrats and populists are attacking women’s freedoms and their sexual rights. They promote what they call ‘traditional’ values.”

Delegations have been relitigating long-standing cultural and political disputes from the role of the family and sexual and reproductive health rights, to global taxation, debt relief, and the reform of the international financial system, according to an internal, 173-page compilation detailing each country or regional group’s amendments.

For instance, China, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela backed provisions denouncing the use of unilateral sanctions. Turkey sought to include a call for a cease-fire and unhindered access for aid workers in Gaza, citing the “grave impact” of the war, particularly “on the lives, safety and well being of women and children.” Russia, meanwhile, joined forces with conservative states, including Iraq, Indonesia, and the Holy See, in seeking to strike out references to sexual and reproductive health rights and care.

Women’s rights advocates voiced concerns that negotiations, intended to focus on a relatively uncontroversial topic — harnessing the international financial system to end poverty for women — were devolving into a contentious spat between an increasingly polarized world community.

“We were quite hopeful that they would include strong language around economic issues” in the final declaration, Amina Hersi, the head of gender rights and justice at Oxfam, told Devex. But the talks, she added, have been marred by geopolitical disputes over Gaza and Ukraine and around gender, abortion and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

“A lot of member states are holding to their ideology around family values,” she said, noting that it appeared unlikely they would adopt anything progressive that “moves the needle on gender equality and gender justice.”

The war deficit

The wars in Gaza and Ukraine cast a pall over the deliberations, underscoring the degree to which conflict threatens to snuff out whatever gains women have secured in recent decades.  

“When we go one step forward, the [Israeli] occupation pushes us several steps backwards,” said Amal Hamad, the Palestinian minister for women’s affairs, accusing Israel of inflicting extreme hardship on Gazan women and children. “The women of Gaza have paid a huge tribute … They want to erase Gaza from the face of the earth.”

Israel Minister for Social Equality and the Advancement of the Status of Women May Golan countered that Israeli women have been subjected to “unimaginable violence” since Hamas stormed Israel on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking more than 240 hostages — there are currently more than 130 in captivity, though more than 30 of those may be dead. They have endured “brutality, murder, rape, mutilation and unspeakable acts of cruelty inflicted upon them because of who they are: Israelis, Jews,” she said.

The week’s U.N. proceedings took place against a background of an increasingly heated debate between Palestinian and Israeli diplomats over sexual crimes committed by Hamas in the brutal raid in southern Israel and reports of sexual abuse by Israeli jailers.

On March 11, Pramila Patten, Guterres’ special representative, briefed the U.N. Security Council on the findings of her inquiry into sexual violence during the attack.

Patten’s report found “reasonable grounds to believe that conflict-related sexual violence occurred during the 7 October attacks in multiple locations across Gaza’s periphery, including rape and gang rape, in at least three locations.”

“The mission found that several fully naked or partially naked bodies from the waist down were recovered — mostly women — with hands tied and shot multiple times, often in the head,” the report stated. It also found “clear and convincing evidence that some hostages “have been subjected to various forms of conflict-related violence including rape and sexualized torture and sexualized cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and it also has reasonable grounds to believe such violence may be ongoing.”

Patten’s team also reported on allegations of sexual abuses of Palestinians. “Alleged instances of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, including inncreased instances of various forms of sexual violence in the form of invasive body searches of detainees, which include unwarranted touching of intimate areas and forced unveiling of women wearing Hijab; beatings, including in the genital areas; threats of rape against women.”

Those findings were reinforced by a confidential report by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East on the mistreatment of Palestinian detainees.

“While women generally reported being treated better than the men … they complained of being insulted, being subjected to psychological abuse and threat of inappropriate touching during searches,” according to the confidential report, first cited by The New York Times, and reviewed by Devex. “Some reported having to strip off their clothes in front of male soldiers during searches and were prevented from covering themselves up.”

The report, which was marked confidential, claimed that UNRWA staff members were subject to “severe physical beatings” and other forms of “humiliating and degrading treatment.” It cited rape as one several types of abuse suffered by UNRWA workers, but an UNRWA spokesperson believed the rape allegation was not true.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield said that “all parties to this conflict must uphold their obligations under international law with regard to the treatment of detained individuals. But as a democracy, we expect Israel to hold all those who have committed these acts accountable for such acts.”

But she urged the 15-nation Security Council to avoid “drawing a fa

lse equivalency between these actions and hostage-taking by a foreign terrorist organization. Let me be clear: These two things are not the same.”

What’s a family?

Giedrė Balčytytė, Lithuania government chancellor, decried the role of the world’s autocrats, principally Russian President Vladimir Putin, in curbing advances in the struggle for a better life for women.

“In the discussions like this, one may feel a prevailing sense of dissonance,” she told foreign delegates at a round table discussion on financing for gender equality. “In one sentence, we talk about women sheltering from Russian bombs in Ukraine and in another about sophisticated technological solutions or other innovative policies for gender equality and women’s empowerment.”

The disputes echoed the kind of cultural and religious wars playing out domestically in the U.S. and other countries, on abortion or gender rights. The U.S. and European partners clashed with conservative governments, with Belarus recommending the final document refer to the family as “the natural and fundamental group unit of society.”

Russia and Belarus joined forces with a number of Muslim countries, including Iraq and Pakistan, to uphold the primacy of a family led by a man and a woman and eliminate protections for “sexual and gender-based violence.” China and Russia also proposed stripping out references to “feminist groups.”

“We believe that the majority of the internationally agreed development goals, especially those related to poverty eradication would be difficult to attain unless the strategies to achieve them focus on the family,” Belarus’ Permanent Representative to the U.N. Valentin Rybakov, speaking on behalf of the 28-nation Group of Friends of the Family, said at the opening of the session. “Equal sharing of family responsibility by men and women and harmonious partnership between them remain critical to the well-being of their families.”

“The global democratic backsliding is worrying,” Norway’s minister of culture and equality, Lubna Jaffery, told delegates on Thursday. “We are deeply concerned by the seemingly organized pushback against gender equality and sexual reproductive health and rights.”

“Religion and so-called traditional values are used as an excuse to deprive girls and women of their rights,” she added. “Every girl and woman should be able to decide freely over her own body and life.”

The United States and its more liberal allies repeatedly butted heads with conservative governments over proposals to include a series of progressive phrases — including gender transformative, sexual and reproductive health and rights, gender-based violence, or multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination — aimed at reforming social structures, laws, and cultural norms to promote gender equality. The phrases are viewed by social conservatives as code for promoting abortions and defending the rights of LGBTIQ+ persons. Syria, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Belarus, Turkey, Indonesia, Iraq, the Holy See, and others sought to strike such references in the declaration.

“We must invest in quality education, including comprehensive sexual education, for women and girls,” Thomas-Greenfield told delegates on March 12, warning that a failure to achieve greater equality for women will undermine efforts to achieve the SDGs. “All of this work must be led by and for women and girls in all their diversity, especially those facing multiple, intersecting forms of discrimination.”

Governments must “signal that we are all committed to tackling poverty together and demonstrating” and that “we stand united…for gender equality, for women’s right to sexual and reproductive autonomy, for the rights of LGBTIQ+ persons and their protection, against anti-feminism, hate speech and any attempt of a rollback [women’s rights],” Lisa Paus, Germany’s minister for family affairs, senior citizens, women and youth, told delegations last week.

The debate — which opened on March 11 — focuses on the myriad ways in which women end up holding the short stick, socially and economically, lack the same property rights as men, are subject to laws that favor males, are denied education and decision-making roles in government, and carry out a disproportionate share of unpaid household care.

One proposal took aim at the so-called pink tax, a practice in which goods and services intended for or marketed to women and girls cost more than similar goods and services intended for or marketed to men and boys. Others drew attention to the way in which tax policy and debt relief can hasten women’s descent into poverty.

The U.N. and governments in the global south had hoped to highlight the need to persuade foreign treasuries and international financial institutions to more directly link the cause of gender equality to reform of the international financial system.

But the U.S. — which has favored conducting such negotiations in Washington, where the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are based — sought to strike language calling for the reform of multilateral banks, according to the internal compilation of proposed amendments. The U.S. also joined forces with China and Russia in pushing back on debt relief, proposing the deletion of a provision advocating steps towards a “debt workout mechanism to address sovereign debt restructuring and enhance fiscal space for  redistributive gender responsive spending.”

The State Department declined to respond to a request to discuss its negotiating position, saying simply that the U.S. “prioritizes the work of the UN Commission on the Status of Women as the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.  We are working closely with member states to advance the Commission’s critical mandate and the central themes of the 68th Session.”



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