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Gender equality key to the future

Liz Ford

After weeks of tough negotiations, a landmark United Nations agreement has strengthened women's rights.

The Commission on the Status of Women upholds women's rights to reproductive health. (AFP)

United Nations member states have agreed that gender equality and women's rights must be prioritised in future discussions on what should be included in the next set of sustainable development goals.

After two weeks of negotiations in New York, the Commission on the Status of Women ended with an agreement that called for the acceleration of progress towards achieving the millennium development goals. It also confirmed the need for a stand-alone goal on gender equality and women's empowerment in the set of targets that will be introduced once they expire in 2015. The agreement also said gender equality must underpin all other goals.

Campaigners welcomed the strong language in the outcome document, which had been fiercely fought over by delegates in the final days of negotiations.

The document will now be used to push for a stand-alone goal and the mainstreaming of gender equality in the sustainable development goals, which are currently being negotiated by the UN open working group.

There were concerns that some important references to women's rights would be removed or watered down in the document when the Vatican, which has a seat at the UN as a nonmember permanent observer state, began pushing for significant changes to the text.

No condoms
During the discussions, the Holy See reiterated that it could not support the use of condoms and that abstinence was the only way to prevent HIV.

The African bloc of countries had also been agitating to include a sove­reignty clause in the document. Such a clause would have allowed governments to ignore the recommendations that could interfere with their own traditions and practices. This clause was withdrawn.

The inclusion of the stand-alone gender goal also proved contentious and the final decision to include it was by no means unanimous.

But there is general agreement that this year's Commission on the Status of Women did produce a strong outcome. The document makes specific references to uphold women's sexual and reproductive health and rights; there was agreement to eliminate all harmful practices, including child marriage and female genital mutilation, which, significantly, would in future not be referred to as "cutting".

There were also explicit references made to a woman's right to access abortion services and for the development of sex education programmes for young people. And there was strong language about violence against women and girls. The document called for the elimination and prevention of violence and for the prosecution of perpetrators.

Discriminatory practices
The document also called on governments to address discriminatory social practices, laws and beliefs that undermine gender equality.

"We know that equality for women means progress for all," said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women. "Through the development of a comprehensive road map for the future, we have the opportunity to realise this premise and promise."

Françoise Girard, president of the International Women's Health Coalition, said: "Agreement to a stand-alone goal on gender equality was not a foregone conclusion here, given the small but very vocal conservative opposition to women's rights. It's a major step forward to have the commission agree to it."

Antonia Kirkland, legal adviser at Equality Now, said: "Throughout the process there has been broad agreement that freedom from violence against women and girls, as well as the elimination of child marriage and female genital mutilation must be targets within such a framework. Equality Now believes sex discriminatory laws, including those that actually promote violence against women and girls, must be repealed as soon as possible to really change harmful practices and social norms."

As expected, any mention of sexual orientation was removed from the final text, as was an acknowledgment of the diversity of families. Governments, including Norway and Argentina, said they would continue to push for these issues at the commission next year.

"A number of governments have championed the most controversial issues in an incredibly hostile environment," said Amanda Keifer, international policy analyst at Advocates for Youth. "But we have also seen hateful and regressive rhetoric from governments and far-right civil society organisations. There is no reason that sexual and reproductive health and rights should be so controversial in 2014." – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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