Catholic Women's League at United Nations

Thursday 11 April 2013

Words + pictures by Fiona Basile, Kairos Catholic Journal

NEW YORK CITY—the city that never sleeps.
I can testify to that personally, having just spent two weeks there attending the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations (UN). What a steep learning curve in terms of international relations, negotiations and diplomacy—this was certainly no holiday!

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More than 6000 people attended the session—the biggest in its history—including UN agencies staff, UN member state delegates (193 countries are represented at the UN) and non-government-organisation (NGO) representatives. I attended in the capacity of youth observer for the Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga, along with Jane Munro, Catholic Women’s League of Australia (CWLA) National International Secretary. As an NGO, the CWLA has consultative (Roster) status with the Economic and Social Council, a body of the UN. Article 71 of the UN Charter requires the UN to maintain close relations with NGOs in order to remain true to its goals.

The theme of this year’s CSW was ‘The elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls’. Violence against women and girls is rife in many nations, and the magnitude of the violence, the forms in which it is manifested, and its causes are many. We have a long way to go to alleviate this problem.

Both in the lead-up to the CSW, and during the two weeks of its sitting, UN state delegations, influenced by countless NGOs, debated the content of what was to become the final document, the ‘Agreed Conclusions’ of the commission—the Agreed Conclusions can be used by NGOs and governments in their respective countries to help shape policy and laws applicable to the abolition of violence against women and girls.

Given there were no Agreed Conclusions last year, there was intense pressure on the delegates to produce a final document. After tense negotiating, word for word, paragraph for paragraph, and a frenzy of Twitter feeds and Facebook updates in the final hours of the Friday afternoon and evening of the second week, an Agreed Conclusions document was adopted.

According to World Youth Alliance director of advocacy Elyssa Koren, most countries accepted the text as fair. She said: ‘The initial draft document had been littered with references to reproductive rights language, which is understood to include abortion.’ These had been filtered down to only a few mentions in the final document and were qualified with reference to the International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo in 1994, which underlines countries’ sovereign rights to determine their own national laws on these issues.

However, one of the biggest losses in terms of the language, she said, was the deletion of the words ‘the family’ which had appeared in earlier drafts due to the controversy over saying ‘all forms of the family’ and also the deletion of the phrase, ‘the inherent right to life, liberty and security of persons’. This is a serious blow given it contradicts a foundation principle of civilisations worldwide, and is expressed in the US Declaration of Independence and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The Holy See, which has permanent observer status at the UN, had proposed the inclusion of this critical reference, but it was overruled. (Read the Holy See's statement about the Agreed Conclusions at the conclusion of the CSW57 here).

As stated by Professor Helen Alvare, reading out the Holy See’s official statement to the commission: ‘Respect for human life, from conception to natural 
death, is the starting point for confronting a culture of violence. It is also, both philosophically and practically speaking, an inalienable principle. In this regard, any measure which would, of itself, inflict violence cannot at all be considered a fitting response to violence in some of the most difficult social problems confronting women.’

And while this was going on, attendees participated in a multitude of side events hosted by state delegations and NGOs that all addressed the issue of violence against women. On two occasions I was also able to ask questions of the panelists.

The first being to ministers from Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Finland and Norway who were hosting a session on the engagement of boys and men in the effort to eliminate violence against women and girls. The ministers had discussed a variety of ‘preventative measures’ to combat violence against women, but had not mentioned the issue of the increased exposure to and easy access to internet pornography, particularly for young boys, and the effects this was having on their development and attitudes towards women. (My question and the answers were captured on video!)

The second opportunity came at a panel discussion hosted by a Christian NGO. I questioned the inconsistency between the group’s assertion that it aims to uphold the dignity of the person, and to stand against a culture of death, and yet upholds the woman’s right ‘to sexual reproductive rights’ (ie, the right to abortion). Sadly, the question was taken as a comment, and so not answered, but it certainly inspired a lengthy and fruitful conversation with several women after the session.

Certainly the highlights for Jane and me were attending the side events where NGOs are actually helping people in need at a grassroots level. Other highlights were meeting the Most Reverend Francis Chullikatt, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the UN, Reggie Littlejohn, founder of Women’s Rights Without Borders and a passionate advocate against gendercide and China’s one-child policy, the World Youth Alliance team, and the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM) team—just to name a few.

Stay tuned for more reports from the CSW at the UN in upcoming editions of Kairos Catholic Journal and online.

Fiona filed numerous reports and photo galleries on the Catholic Women's League of Victoria Wagga Wagga Facebook page and on its website.