Silence Isn't Conservative: Speaking Up for Women's Rights

03/05/2013 03:51 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2013

NEW YORK, NY -- As thousands of women from all over the world gather at the United Nations in New York this week to mark the 57th anniversary of the Commission of the Status of Women [CSW], also attending will be some conservative NGOs who's rhetoric is damaging, unproductive and not in alignment with the goals or ideologies of this powerful and important commission.

CSW was established by the United Nations as the sole global policymaking body dedicated to gender equality and advancement of women throughout all aspects of society including economically, socially, educationally, and politically. We gather annually to set in place concrete policies for the year ahead to ensure the advancement of women worldwide and ensure gender equality, which in my part of the world still has a long way to go. The 20-strong member delegation I am leading includes women from eight different countries: Syria, Libya, Egypt, Somalia, Yemen, Jordan and Morocco. They are wives, mothers, daughters and sisters united in their objectives: Women deserve the same opportunity as men and all of us have a responsiblity to help end violence against women.

Last week, the U.S. Senate passed an expanded bipartisan "Violence Against Women Act," an important step forward as we begin this week's important global gathering. Yet conservative NGOs here in New York are missing the big picture of CSW by focusing on so-called "sensitive issues" related to gender equality and pro-life issues, arguing a woman's right to choose to have an abortion is a "violent act," and should be stopped. As an example, the "Endeavor Forum," a Christian pro-life family Australian NGO states "there is a need for women to defend the legitimate rights of traditional women in families and the rights of male breadwinners to get jobs." Another NGO, "Concerned Women for America" is the largest public policy women's organization in the United States who lobbies for integrating biblical principles into all levels of public policy. Are these really examples of moving forward?

What should be stopped are such shortsighted views on serious issues affecting hundreds of millions of women across the globe, particularly at a time when women are becoming more active in effecting change and speaking up for it. Look no further then where I live -- Cairo, Egypt -- where women continue to participate and contribute as equal partners to men in popular movements demanding democratic change. The effects and impact of these movements, which call for freedom, justice, equality, and dignity in view of laws protecting the rights and freedoms of individuals and groups within the framework of a modern democratic civil state, constituted a turning point in the lives of the region's people. Are these conservative NGOs really asking us to turn the clock back?

Among our delegation at CSW, and what was discussed recently at our UN Women meeting in Amman, Jordan, is the sad realization that the rise of political conservatism and religious fundamentalism allied with tribal agendas within the guise of the pro-democracy movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and Syria, has resulted in a backlash on women's rights and women's equal participation in society. Moreover, women and girls in the region are facing new forms of organized political violence, which often fail to be punished by the state and which the state has failed to effectively protect them from, including sexual harassment, gang rapes, and intimidation linked to their civic engagement. As a result, the rights and achievements of women have been severely undermined, and women have been marginalized and bullied from fully participating in public life, as well as from making key decisions in their private lives. This must stop. We will be lobbying hard this week to ensure this message is relayed to all the governments in our region and around the world who still don't provide women with equal opportunities.

We will continue to stress the need to urgently address and outlaw all forms of discrimination, violence, exploitation, and marginalization on the basis of gender in both public and private spheres, including the undermining of women's personal freedoms and their physical and psychological security. We must respect and enforce women's civil, political, economic, social, cultural, health, and reproductive rights as stipulated in the various international human rights instruments, particularly the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. There is no time for rhetoric of moving backwards to accommodate conservative agendas. What the 57th session of the Commission of the Status of Women does has time for is not to be silenced, as the conservatives would like us to be. CSW will continue to effect a lasting global impact and promote a world where everyone has equal opportunities and a better place for the next generation of women to come.