Some horrific events over the past few months, including the shooting of a Pakistani schoolgirl and the rape and murder of a young Indian physiotherapy student, should have been an alert for the world to unite in preventing violence against women.
But if a conference now under way at the United Nations is any guide, that message has not resounded with the necessary urgency. Halfway into their two-week annual meeting, delegates to the Commission on the Status of Women fear they will not be able to agree on a final communiqué, just like last year.
Who is to blame? Delegates and activists are pointing fingers at the Vatican, Iran and Russia for trying to eliminate language in a draft communiqué asserting that the familiar excuses — religion, custom, tradition — cannot be used by governments to duck their obligation to eliminate violence. The United Nations Human Rights Council endorsed similar language just six months ago.
Conservative hard-liners seem determined to fight it out again. They have also objected to references to abortion rights, as well as language suggesting that rape also includes forcible behavior by a woman's husband or partner. Poland, Egypt, other Muslim states and conservative American Christian groups have criticized one or more parts of the draft. The efforts by the Vatican and Iran to control women are well known. It is not clear what motivates Russia, although there is a strong antifeminist strain in President Vladimir V. Putin's government. He may also be trying to curry favor with Islamic states.
In any case, the suggestion that traditional values justify the violation of basic human rights is spurious. As Inga Marte Thorkildsen, Norway's gender equality minister, has noted, “Violence against women must be seen as a human rights issue, and that has nothing to do with culture or religion.”
Gender-based violence is an epidemic. A World Bank report estimated that more women between the ages of 15 and 44 were at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria combined. According to the United Nations and other sources, more than 600 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not considered a crime and more than 3 million girls are facing female genital mutilation. Women in all social, economic, ethnic and religious groups are affected. The conference will be a failure if it cannot produce ambitious global standards that will deliver concrete results to protect women and girls.