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57th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW): “Statement of the WHRD IC on arguments using religion, culture and tradition to block negotiations on women’s rights at the CSW57.”

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The Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRD IC) congratulates the 57th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) on reaching the Agreed Conclusions. We particularly welcome the reference to women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in the language of the Agreed Conclusions.

However, the WHRD IC is deeply concerned about alarming trends in the negotiations of the CSW outcome document. We condemn the use of arguments based on religion, tradition and cultural specificity and relativism to justify violence, discrimination and violations of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women and girls. As an organization committed to the protection and support of WHRDs worldwide, we note with special concern the possible setback this trend could cause to international human rights agreements that WHRDs have fought for and achieved over the years, especially relating to women’s and LGBT rights, as well as its undermining effect on the very basic principle of universality and indivisibility of human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

At the 57th CSW, the theme of which was ending violence against women and girls, some conservative states, including Iran, Russia, Syria, and the Vatican made interventions attempting to reverse progress in the language of women’s human rights and rights of those minoritized based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in the draft conclusions. These attacks especially targeted sexual and reproductive rights and rights to bodily integrity and gender equality, using specificity of religion, culture and tradition to justify the denial of women’s human rights and of states’ responsibility to respect, protect and fulfill women’s human rights, including responsibility to prevent and to end violence against women without discrimination and impunity for the perpetrators.

Following this attempt by conservative states and groups, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s statement on the draft conclusions from the CSW caused us great concern.[1] The Muslim Brotherhood claimed that the draft conclusions is a “misleading and deceptive” document which will lead to the “complete disintegration of society” as they claimed it violates Islamic principles, and called on “leaders of Muslim countries and their UN representatives to reject and condemn this document”.[2] The Muslim Brotherhood confirmed their disrespectful attitude and position against the advancement of women’s human rights by committing violence against a WHRD at a peaceful event celebrating Egyptian Women’s Day. On March 16th, 2013 in front of the Guidance Office of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian WHRD was violently assaulted by one of the irregular militias of the Muslim Brotherhood while joining a group of activists peacefully gathered to express their opinions on abuses and violations against women’s and human rights through arts.

WHRDs play an essential role in defending women and girls against violence and rights violations, covering all human rights issues, including civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. WHRDs often raise sensitive issues, such as gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive rights, sexual orientation and gender identity, actively challenging the status quo of patriarchal structures and aspects of religion, tradition and culture that violate women’s rights.

We condemn the patriarchal framework adopted by conservative states and groups to silence women’s voices and deny women’s rights and fundamental freedoms. We uphold the validity of women’s bodily autonomy and independent choices, including sexual and reproductive choices, sexual orientation and gender identity. In addition to reversing progress, this alarming trend can also heighten the risks faced by WHRDs, especially those who work on sexual and reproductive rights as they are specifically targeted by harassment, stigmatization, discrimination, criminalization and physical and sexual violence. This is also true for defenders who are targeted simply because they are women or WHRDs who are actively seen to challenge heteronormativity. Patriarchy and heteronormativity, disguised under religious, traditional and customary norms and practices, lay the foundation for systemic violations of the human rights of women, those who are discriminated against based on their sexual orientations and gender identity (real or perceived) and WHRDs worldwide. In post-revolutionary Egypt, this climate of impunity has been particularly disturbing. The Egyptian government has failed to protect women and as a result, instead of reopening a safe public space to women, their political participation has been met with increased incidents of sexual assault and harassment, victim blaming and widespread inaction by authorities to respond to these crimes.

The pretext of religious and cultural specificity and relativism to justify discrimination and violations of women’s rights is unacceptable and intolerable. The WHRD IC call on all governments and the international community to reject this attempt to attack and roll back the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women under these pretexts. We demand all governments comply with their obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women. In addition, we call for increased attention and commitment of governments to act to prevent and eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls, including discrimination and violations in the name of religious or customary norms and practices.

The Agreed Conclusions from CSW57 are an important step for the advancement of women’s human rights and dignity. The WHRD IC urges all governments and the international community to move forward on implementation and accountability in order to bring international agreements on women’s rights into lived reality. Any backlash is intolerable and must be rejected by all parties.

Additionally, the WHRD IC calls upon the international community, including member states of the UN, the UN human rights and development entities, and civil society to recognize and support the critical role of WHRDs who are at the frontline of defending the human rights of women and who face particular risks because of both their gender and their activism that challenges patriarchal structures and religious and cultural practices that violate the human rights of women and girls. We will move forward together on the basis of international agreements on the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women that we have reached over many years through international laws, treaties and other platforms.

[1] It is also important to highlight the ‘double identity’ of the Egyptian government in relation to the Muslim Brotherhood’s involvement: the Freedom and Justice party is ruling the country, but the president is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood – this leads us to respond as if it were a government statement, while rather the Muslim Brotherhood (who released the statement) is a non-formal actor that should be held accountable for its acts. Indeed, President Morsi has distanced himself from the MB statement. Nevertheless, many have questioned the plausibility of this separation, given the affinities between the Freedom and Justice party and the Muslim Brotherhood in terms of political views, membership and ideology.

[2] “Muslim Brotherhood Statement Denouncing UN Women Declaration for Violating Sharia Principles.” 14 March, 2013. Accessed 4 April 2013.

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