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UN Holds Line: Women's Rights are Human Rights

With seven out of 10 women a target of sexual abuse, one would think it would be simple to adopt a program to combat violence. In the end a U.N. conference did that despite incendiary objections from the Muslim Brotherhood.

"Yes, we did it," said Michelle Bachelet, the executive director of the U.N woman's agency, to cheers and applause. "There can be no peace, no progress as long as there is discrimination against women."

The 17-page compromise document, not yet published in full, culminated two weeks of tough negotiations among 135 governments and 6,000 non-governmental groups attending the 57th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) conference.

As many as seven out of every 10 women will experience violence in their lifetimes, according to U.N. figures. While more than 125 countries have specific laws that penalize domestic violence, some 603 million women live in countries where it is not considered a crime.

But U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice estimates that, one in three women worldwide will still be beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in their lifetimes, most of them by an intimate partner.

Many of the once-controversial provisions on sexual and reproductive rights were approved in the outcome document but explicit provisions to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination did not make the final cut.

Rice, in her final statement to the conference, expressed regret, saying that "basic rights must apply to everyone" and must "ensure equality for all people regardless of who they are or whom they love."

Although the document is not binding, it sets out goals for governments and gives action groups a blueprint for lobbying.

Said Françoise Girard, president of the International Women's Health Coalition: "In the context of these difficult negotiations, we have made gains that we can use to protect women and girls from violence when we all go home."

Muslim Brotherhood protests
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood ( President Mohamed Morsi is a member) expressed horror at the proposals to reduce violence against women and said the recommendations would result in the "complete disintegration of society."

Its statement objected to contraceptives, abortion, equal rights for "adulterous wives and illegitimate sons", equal inheritance and a full sharing of roles within the family. The statement also expressed the need for a husband to consent to travel, work and contraception. (See full text)

But the Egyptian delegation ignored it all.

Mervat Tallawy, president of the National Council for Women-Egypt, supported the document and joined the consensus. She had also submitted a paper to the CSW saying that her country's "new constitution ignored the basic rights of women politically, socially and economically."

In response, a group of women's groups, called the Arab Caucus, expressed alarm at the arguments based on religion, culture and tradition to justify, violence and discrimination.

They underlined that "the taboos and politicization of issues around sexuality are major hindrances to gender justice and the elimination and prevention of violence against women and girls in our countries." Included were groups from Lebanon, Palestine, Tunisia, Jordan and others.

Who said what?
As in past years, a group of conservatives, including the Holy See, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and Honduras and several other states wanted a provision that would make the document relative to religious, cultural or traditional practices, a policy that would have nullified nearly large parts of the agreed conclusions.

Consequently the majority of countries in the world refused adopt any outcome statement that would repeal decisions made at previous conferences or in human rights documents. A decade ago, the conference ended with no statement on violence.

The Bush administration, in contrast to the Obama delegates, had often joined the dissenters because of opposition to abortion (as if it were not legal in the United States) and other provisions on reproductive rights.

Why Russia?
This year Putin's Russia joined the conservatives for reasons not immediately clear, since the Soviet Union was one of the first in the world to promote women's rights. Diplomats believed it was gay rights.

Outcome documents are approved by consensus. Individual nations, like Libya, for example, often state their reservations at the conclusion but do not try to block the agreement.

What's it say?
The final document, called Agreed Conclusions, calls for affordable health care, including sexual and reproductive health services such as emergency contraception and safe abortion, for victims of violence.

Governments have recommitted to comprehensive sexuality education, the need to stop harmful practices of "negative" culture and traditions, such as female circumcision, women living with HIV and women in jail. The document also calls for an end to child, early and forced marriage, which is an increasing problem in many countries.

Some horror stories
Worldwide, 67 million girls are forced into marriage before the age of 18, the U.N. Population Fund reported. Endless cases of rape and violence of women and girls in every country but never make headlines.

Among the many gruesome reports at the conference, Agnes Leia of Kenya told of customs in the town of Suburu, where young girls are "beaded" - given beautiful trinkets in exchange for sex with unmarried youths until they turn 14. They are not allowed "to say no."

If the girls become pregnant, they have a primitive forced abortion and before any legal marriage they undergo circumcision -- Female Genital Mutilation.

Bachelet leaves New York for Chile
Michelle Bachelet, the head of U.N. Women, used her closing speech at the conference to announce she was "going back to her country." A former president of Chile, it is assumed she will run for office again. (see biography)

In a tweet, Ambassador Rice called her resignation from the United Nations "a major bummer" and said "she is awesome and helped save #CSW 2013."

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