We can’t compromise on women’s human rights

By Jacqueline Hansen, Major Campaigns and Women’s Rights Campaigner

This week Canada had the rather unenviable position of chairing negotiations at the UN Human Rights Council on its annual resolution on violence against women. It is something Canada has done for close to twenty years, and Canada’s leadership has been lauded for progressively strengthening this important resolution.

This should be easy, right? Who wouldn’t want to support actions to combat violence, and in particular sexual violence, against women and girls? Think again. It certainly wasn’t the case this year.

A handful of countries don’t support strong action to combat violence against women. Egypt, Russia, China, Cuba, the Holy See, and others, all worked behind the scenes to weaken protections to women and girls who are victimized by sexual violence.

And where was Canada? Canada was dealing with feedback from countries that wanted strong language to protect women, and an assault from countries that wanted to weaken the draft resolution text. This is why I say that Canada was in an unenviable position this week—trying to strike a balance between so many different interests is never easy.

But the overriding goal shouldn’t necessarily be to strike a balance. We should be looking at how best to protect women and girls from all forms of violence, and we should be looking at how best to ensure that all women have their fundamental human rights, including the rights to health, equality and life, fully respected.

The final text adopted today does strike a balance. Among other things it includes very good language condemning marital rape and early and enforced marriage. But does it best protect women and ensure their rights will be fully respected? It needed to go further. It fails to include provisions for sexuality education for adolescents, which play a role in promoting gender equality, female empowerment, and reduction of gender-based violence. The resolution does mention the need to provide sexual and reproductive health services to violence survivors, but it fails to list what services must be available, including emergency contraception, safe abortion, post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, and screening and treatment for sexually transmitted infections. The provision of these critical services for survivors of sexual violence is contentious and nonexistent in many countries. That is why referencing these examples explicitly would have added tremendously to the resolution. 

These are contentious issues that are not easy for any state to deal with, but they are not impossible to tackle. This week the United States found the right path and came out strongly in support of including language on sexuality education and services for violence survivors.

What could  a country chairing this sort of negotiations do differently? It would not have been risky to insert pre-agreed language from the 57th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. This would have avoided re-opening the battles waged on this text before its adoption in March.

Compromising on international standards lowers the bar. In this case the bar was lowered because the strong language adopted at the Commission on the Status of Women was excluded. This dealt a victory to the group of states working to erode women’s sexual and reproductive rights, who did not want text on sexuality education and services for sexual violence survivors referenced in the UN Human Rights Council.

The UN Security Council will pass a resolution in July on sexual violence. The Conference on Population and Development will review its language on sexual and reproductive rights in 2014. At all of these forums, we must advocate for bold leadership that will put the rights of women and girls at the forefront, because we can’t compromise on our rights to make decisions about our bodies and our lives.