The Agreed Conclusion of CSW57 – Reaffirmation of the Universality of Women’s Human Rights

by | Apr 10, 2013

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Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast

Last month we ran a special themed post series on the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW57).  We are delighted to conclude this series with a special extended post from Professor Frances Raday, a Mandate Holder in the UN Human Rights Council and a participant in CSW57. By Frances Raday –

The Agreed Conclusions of the 57th Session of Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), on the theme of “The elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls”, represent a considerable achievement for  the women’s universal human rights focused Member States, in particular most of the European countries. In addition to the well-constructed provisions on domestic violence, two themes which are particularly welcome are the reaffirmation of the universality of women’s human rights and the recognition of the public dimensions of violence against women.

Skilful organisation by the CSW Bureau and its Chairperson and forceful argument and side events by numerous women’s civil society organisations resulted in the inclusion in the Agreed Conclusions of important issues that had not appeared in the earlier draft. The reaffirmation of the universality of women’s human rights is a crucial rejection of the attempt in recent years to restore traditional values to the interpretation of human rights. This attempt has been promoted by a cross-regional group, which variously includes Russia, Syria, UAR, Malaysia, Kuwait, Libya, Indonesia and Bangladesh Egypt, Tunisia, Qatar. States from this group have succeeded in having resolutions on traditional values adopted by the Human Rights Council and were pivotal in preempting agreement by the CSW in 2003 on the theme of violence against women and, in 2012, on the theme of empowerment of rural women.

The issues which are contentious for the traditional values  block  are, inter alia, women’s reproductive rights and services; minimum marriage age of 18 in accordance with art. 1 CRC and art. 16 CEDAW and CEDAW GR 21on equality in marriage and family relations; protection for women involved in prostitution; prohibition of “harmful traditional practices”; sexual orientation and sex education. The CSW firmly rejected the adoption of a relativist approach at both the theoretical and the operative levels. It reiterated that all human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated and urged states to “to strongly condemn any form of violence against women and girls and to refrain from invoking any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination”.

At an operative level, the CSW included a significant range of obligations which are at the core of the traditionalist camp’s opposition. The Agreed Conclusions included promotion and protection of women’s human right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters relating to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health free of coercion, discrimination and violence, and called upon states implement laws and policies which protect their fundamental freedoms, including their reproductive rights. It also called for a review of the minimum age of consent and age for marriage and an end to the practice of “child, early and forced marriage”; while this provision falls short of fixing a minimum age for consent and marriage at 18, as the CEDAW Committee has called for, in its concluding observations, it goes beyond the traditionalist approach which may allow marriage after puberty by adding the concept of early or forced marriage.

The CSW addressed the need to ensure access to services and programs on preventing early pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, to ensure institutional support and continued post-primary education for girls who were “married and/or pregnant”. It also talked of the need for comprehensive evidence based education on human sexuality and need to provide formal and informal education to girls to develop their self-esteem and access to a sustainable livelihood. A recommendation was included that emergency contraception and safe abortion be provided for women who have been raped. This said, the battle over traditional values has not yet been entirely won. There was no mention in the agreed conclusions of harmful traditional practices, intimate partner violence, prostitution or violence on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Working Group on Discrimination against Women was particularly satisfied to see the inclusion in the Agreed Conclusions of a series of issues on violence against women in the public as well as the private sphere, which I, as Vice Chairperson, had presented to the CSW in an interactive dialogue, on the basis of the Working Group’s 2012-1013 work on the theme of women’s public and political lives. The Working Group is looking at violence against women as a cross-cutting issue in the four thematic areas it has established as its conceptual framework: public and political life; economic and social life; family and culture; health and safety. It regards elimination of gender based violence against women in all these spheres as crucial for women’s empowerment.

While noting, in agreement with the CSW Agreed Conclusions, that intimate partner violence and domestic violence remain the most prevalent forms of violence, and while fully aware that domestic violence undermines the victims’ ability to enjoy equal opportunity in each and every sphere of their lives, the Working Group emphasises the additional dimension of violence against women in the public sphere and regards the elimination of violence against women in the public sphere as a prerequisite for achieving their equal access to the political and economic space. In the Agreed Conclusions, the CSW stressed that violence against women is gender-based violence “whether occurring in the public or private sphere”, in armed conflict and post-conflict situations, or “in public spaces” and that women’s “full participation in public and political life is essential for addressing the structural and underlying causes of violence against women”.

The CSW also included a much welcomed reference to the need to support and protect human rights defenders, who face particular risks of violence. It also addressed the new public space of ICT and social media, with all its potential for empowerment of girls and the need to develop mechanisms to combat its emerging forms of VAW, such as cyber stalking and privacy violations that compromise women’s and girls’ safety. There is much room for satisfaction and appreciation of the CSW’s achievement and some place for optimism that it sets us on a good path for the future.


Frances Raday is the President of the Concord Research Center for Integration of International Law in Israel, Professor of Law, Hebrew University, Jerusalem (emerita) and a Mandate Holder in the UN Human Rights Council.

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