Useful foundation

Useful foundation

An important step to end violence against women and girls has been taken by the international community with the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) reaching agreement on a code of conduct for combating the problem.

For over a decade, efforts to reach such an agreement were blocked by conservative governments, religious groups etc over differences over sex education, reproductive rights, etc. Their resistance to gender equality and reproductive rights was visible at the just-concluded meet at the UN as well. Although the Vatican wasn’t voting at the meet, it lobbied actively with diplomats from countries with sizeable Catholic populations to block an agreement. Muslim countries sought to dilute the agreement’s provisions.

The Egyptian government, for instance, which is controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, sought to introduce an amendment that recognised a state’s sovereignty in implementing the agreement. This would have enabled governments to avoid providing women with access to safe abortion on the plea that this clashed with local laws or to allow violent practices such as genital mutilation that is sanctioned by cultural tradition. That the meeting ended with a consensus document recognising gender equality, women's empowerment, women's reproductive rights and access to sexual and reproductive health services was no small achievement.

The UNCSW agreement provides a strong foundation on which activists can build campaigns to prevent violence against women. It also marks the start of another, more challenging phase in the global effort to get governments to implement the agreement’s provisions. Strong resistance is to be expected. There is world-wide reluctance to recognising sexual violence within a marriage as rape. Contrary to the widely held perception that only Muslim organisations and groups are patriarchical, misogyny marks the outlook of Hindu, Christian and Buddhist religious organisations as well as political parties across the world. Female foeticide thrives in India.

Women’s activists face several challenges in the next phase of their campaign to prevent violence. They must work to identify institutions and organisations that unleash invisible but often more insidious violence against women. The role of the cosmetic industry in pushing women to adopt practices, even surgeries, to enhance their ‘beauty’ deserves more attention and action. It has gone by ignored as use of cosmetics and cosmetic surgeries is often seen to symbolise ‘modernity’ and choice.