After two weeks of fierce negotiations at the United Nations’ annual Commission on the Status of Women, on March 15 more than 130 governments committed to ending violence against women and girls, and reached strong agreements to promote gender equality and ensure access to sexual and reproductive health services.
The International Women’s Health Coalition and our amazing partners from around the world came out in force to the UN for the negotiations. Our agenda was clear: push governments to commit to concrete strategies to empower women and girls and end gender-based violence.
We met with instant opposition from conservative governments. Countries such as Iran, Russia, Egypt, and Syria joined with the Vatican in what The New York Times called “an unholy alliance.” IWHC staff and our women’s rights caucus of more than 100 activists worked around the clock to support progressive delegations to stand strong and not to cave in to pressure. We would not let a small but vocal minority use culture and religion as excuses to deny women their rights.
Our efforts prevailed and consensus was finally reached to loud applause from supportive governments such as Argentina, Brazil, Denmark, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, Switzerland, Turkey, United States, Uruguay, and even the small island of Tonga! As the “agreed conclusions” document was adopted, hundreds of women’s rights activists streamed into the negotiating room to join in the cheers.
For the first time at the UN, governments reached consensus that survivors of rape are entitled to emergency contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancy, and to timely and respectful forensic exams to support prosecution. They called for an end to child marriages. They agreed women’s right to control their sexuality is essential to preventing further violence. And they recognized the role that evidence-based sexuality education can play in reducing the harmful gender stereotypes that lead to violence.
In a sign of just how much was at stake, this year’s meeting received an unprecedented amount of media coverage after the Muslim Brotherhood condemned (and mischaracterized) the negotiations. IWHC featured prominently in many news articles, including in The Washington Post, The Guardian, Associated Press, ABC News, The Globe and Mail, Radio Free Europe, O Estado de S. Paulo, and Reuters.
Once again, we women have shown we’re an irresistible force. But our work is far from over. Now we must be vigilant to ensure that the agreements made at the UN are put into practice in local communities worldwide.
For that to happen, we must continue to support women’s groups to hold their own leaders to account.