SYRIA: U.N. Turns the Spotlight on Syria, Sexual Violence

Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

In addition to the 123 heads of state who will meet for the Sept. 25-Oct. 1 annual gathering of U.N. members starting here today, hundreds of activists and observers will also be on hand to hold their own parallel discussions and forums.

The problem of unmet progress on global development targets for women's health is still on the roster of forums and gatherings, but is not expected to draw the same level of scrutiny as in the past two openings of the U.N. General Assembly and accompanying high-level side events.

"What's on everybody's radar is women's access to justice," said Leisel Gerntholtz, head of the women rights' division of New York City-based Human Rights Watch. "It's something UN Women has been pushing for some time. I've obviously heard that the Middle East – in particular, Syria – is the region that everybody is talking about."

A Security Council resolution condemning the violence in Syria, which started in March 2011, is unlikely. That's because the conflict has deeply divided the 15-member United Nations Security Council, after China and Russia repeatedly vetoed a series of proposed resolutions that require a unanimous vote for approval. The Security Council, with both permanent and rotating country membership, is the U.N. body that issues political statements and sanctions on areas of conflict.

"We're obviously very concerned about reports of sexual violence and we have done reports on this issue on the ground, so we would like to see the international community come together to protect civilians and to speak out on this point," said Gerntholtz.

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Gerntholtz does think next week is a chance to press for more interventions against sexual violence.

The Human Rights Watch report on sexual assault in detention in Syria, released in June 2012, documented more than 20 specific incidents of sexual assault between March 2011 and March 2012 by Syrian government security forces and the army. A culture of fear and shame for victims makes the full extent of sexual violence both in and out of detention facilities in Syria unknown, the report found.

First Public Appearance

In line with the heightened focus on sexual violence, Zainab Hawa Bangura, the secretary-general's new special representative on sexual violence and conflict, will make her first public appearance today, Sept. 25, at a discussion group.

The former minister of health and sanitation in Sierra Leone will appear

alongside Nobel Peace Laureates Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and human rights activist, Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist, and Jody Williams, an American who is the founding coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. (Ebadi and Gbowee are also Women's eNews 21 Leaders.)The group will discuss ways to prevent sexual and gender-based crimes in conflict.

Bangura's early September appointment follows the May 2012 departure of Margot Wallstrom, the first person with the job of leading the six-staff office.

In addition to conflict zones, the issue of sexual violence is also a problem for countries where women are subject to certain cultural norms that violate international standards. One example is forced female genital mutilation, which takes various forms, including the removal of the clitoral hood, the clitoris and inner labia or all or part of the inner labia and outer labia, stitching the labia closed, and, in some cases, the symbolic piercing or pricking of the clitoris or labia, according to the World Health Organization.

Benin and Burkina Faso are proposing a General Assembly resolution to ban female genital mutilation.

However, the issue isn't simple.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International both oppose the resolution, saying criminalization could prompt further stigmatization of the practice. That could drive FGM, as it is sometimes referred, into a "non-existent space" that would be difficult for advocacy rights organizations to access, said Nicole Bjerler, deputy representative at the New York office of Amnesty International, the London-based international rights group.

Women's advocates like Bjerler say it's urgent that women who have been victimized in any way gain broader legal recourse.

Vulnerable Employment

More than 600 million women, more than half the world's female population working outside the home, are presently in positions of vulnerable employment, according to UN Women. About 100 million women worldwide, for instance, are employed in domestic work, which seldom comes with legal protections or secure health benefits.

UN Women, the U.N.'s entity on gender equality and women's empowerment, estimates that 80 percent of women worldwide have little to no access to their country's formal justice system. The organization, led by former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, is promoting corrective measures and advocates are hoping that governments will pledge to enact such recommendations as increasing women in national police forces and "justice sector services," such as courts, to 30 percent by 2017.

UN Women is also pressing governments to repeal all their gender discriminatory laws by 2017. In its February 2010 Beijing +15 report, New York-based human rights organization Equality Now cited Afghanistan, Israel, Mali, Yemen and Tanzania as among the countries that have discriminatory laws on marriage, divorce, polygamy and wife obedience. Chile, Swaziland and the United Arab Emirates were noted for discriminatory laws on inheritance and property, while China, the United Kingdom, Australia and Bolivia were cited for discriminatory laws on employment.

"It's an opportunity. It will be interesting to see what comes out of the meeting and to then hold these countries to what they committed to during the meeting," said Bjerler.

MDG-Related Boosts

The secretary-general's two-year-old policy-based initiative Every Woman, Every Child is also expected to unveil progress early next week on its participating countries' commitments to boost health spending and to announce additional funding pledges.

This comes as an intended boost to further two of the women and children's health Millennium Development Goals, a series of eight policy pledges established in 2000, with a target goal of 2015.

Goals on poverty, water, slums and parity between girls and boys in primary education have either already been met or on target to be met by 2015. The Gender Parity Index, or ratio of enrollment between girls and boys, grew from 91 in 1991 to 97 in 2010 for developing regions as a whole, according to UN figures. Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern Asia and Caucasus and Central Asia boast the highest rates of girls' enrollment in schools, though Western Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have recorded the most progress since 1990.

But a lagging goal is No. 5, which calls for a 75 percent reduction in maternal mortality.

"For sure it is still the most off track of all the MDGs," said Janna Oberdorf, communications director of the New York-based global women and maternal health network Women Deliver. "This year there isn't as much focus on this, but it's still an amazing opportunity to engage all the leaders here throughout the course of the week."

Women Deliver estimates that $12 billion annually will be needed to fulfill the unmet need for family planning, maternal and newborn health and to close the gap to meet the No. 5 target by 2015.

So far, Every Woman, Every Child has dispersed about $10 billion of its $40 billion in campaign reserves, Oberdorf said.