By Ayat Mneina
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Conservative Muslim and Roman Catholic countries and liberal Western nations approved a U.N. blueprint to combat violence against women and girls, ignoring strong objections from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood that it clashed with Islamic principles and sought to destroy the family.
After two weeks of tough and often contentious negotiations, 131 countries joined consensus Friday night on a compromise 17-page document that Michelle Bachelet, the head of the U.N. women’s agency, called historic because it sets global standards for action to prevent and end “one of the gravest violations of human rights in the world, the violence that is committed against women and girls.”
“People worldwide expected action, and we didn’t fail them,” she said to loud applause. “Yes, we did it!”
On Wednesday, the Brotherhood, which has emerged as the most powerful political faction in Egypt since the 2011 uprising, lashed out at the anticipated document for advocating sexual freedoms for women and the right to abortion “under the guise of sexual and reproductive rights.” It called the title, on eliminating and preventing all forms of violence against women and girls, “deceitful.”
Last week, Egypt proposed an amendment to the text saying that each country is sovereign and can implement the document in accordance with its own laws and customs, a provision strongly opposed by many countries in Europe, Latin America and Asia.
It was dropped in the final compromise drafted by the meeting’s chair. Instead, the final text urges all countries “to strongly condemn all forms of violence against women and girls and to refrain from invoking any custom, tradition and religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination.”
When countries were polled on their views on the final draft, there was fear among the declaration’s supporters that Egypt would oppose it, which would block the consensus required for adoption.
The head of Egypt’s delegation, politician and diplomat Mervat Tallawy, surprised and delighted the overwhelming majority of delegates and onlookers in the crowded U.N. conference room when she ignored the Brotherhood and announced that Egypt would join consensus.
“International soldarity is needed for women’s empowerment and preventing this regressive mood, whether in the developing countries or developed, or in the Middle East in particular,” Tallawy told two reporters afterwards. “It’s a global wave of conservatism, of repression against women, and this paper is a message that if we can get together, hold power together, we can be a strong wave against this conservatism.”
Tallawy, who is president of the National Council for Women-Egypt, said she has told this to Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi, who came from the Muslim Brotherhood,
“I believe in women’s cause. I don’t take money from the government. I work voluntarily. If they want to kick me out they can. But I will not change my belief in women,” she said. “Women are the slaves of this age. This is unacceptable, and particularly in our region.”
A number of Muslim and Catholic countries including Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Holy See and Honduras expressed reservations about elements of the text — but Libya was the only country to dissociate itself from the final document though it did not block consensus.
Libya’s top cleric raised similar concerns to the Muslim Brotherhood, rejecting the document for violating Islamic teachings. The Libyan delegation objected to paragraphs calling for sex education for all adolescents and youth, with appropriate direction from parents, and for priority to programs for girls’ education so they can take responsibility for their own lives, “including access to a sustainable livelihood.”
At the start of the meeting, Bachelet said data from the World Health Organization and other research shows that an average of 40 percent — and up to 70 per cent of women in some countries — face violence in their lifetimes, and she pointed to recent high-profile attacks on women in India and Pakistan. She said Friday that during the two-week session “countless women and girls around the world have suffered violence.”
When the Commission on the Status of Women took up violence against women a decade ago, governments were unable to reach agreement on a final document because of differences over sex education, a woman’s right to reproductive health, and demands for an exception for traditional, cultural and religious practices.
The final document approved Friday reaffirms that women and men have the right to enjoy all human rights “on an equal basis,” recommits governments to comprehensive sex education, calls for sexual and reproductive health services such as emergency contraception and safe abortion for victims of violence, and calls on government to criminalize violence against women and punish gender-related killings. But it dropped references to sexual orientation and gender identity.
“We did make gains,” said Francoise Girard, president of the New York-based International Women’s Health Coalition. “This is the first time we have an agreed document recognizing emergency contraception as a necessary service to preserve women’s health.”
Terri Robl, the U.S. deputy representative to the U.N. Economic and Social Council, called the agreement an important step but said the text is “only a beginning.” She expressed regret at its failure to state that ending violence must apply to all women, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity, or to refer specifically to “intimate partner violence.”
While the document is not legally binding, Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said “it sets a certain standard by which all member states can monitor their performance and can be monitored by others.”
The New York Times
Jordan Girds for Influx of Syrian Refugees
By RANA F. SWEIS
MAFRAQ, JORDAN — In this northern Jordanian town, just a few minutes from the Syrian border, tall water tanks can be seen from a distance and an empty lot is encircled with barbed wire.
The refugee camp, still in the process of being prepared, has not been officially opened by the government but is indicative of the preparations being made as more Syrians are expected to flee the violence in their country.
“The last resort is a camp situation,” said Andrew Harper, who heads the Jordan office of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. “Our utmost priority is to provide those in need with the necessary protection.”
As of March 15, the U.N. refugee agency had registered 5,391 Syrians in Jordan and more than 2,000 were waiting for an appointment to register.
Precise figures are hard to come by. A government spokesman, Rakan Majali, said last month that about 80,000 Syrians had sought refuge in Jordan in the 12 months through February. But Panos Moumtzis, the Syria coordinator for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters in Geneva last week that since the Syrian government crackdown began last year, 30,000 people had fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Since independence from Britain in 1946, Jordan has given refuge to various waves of refugees as a result of regional conflicts: Palestinians, Iraqis and now Syrians. But the country is facing increasingly difficult economic conditions, and refugees could affect that for the worse, Bassam Haddadin, a member of Parliament, said in an interview.
“We believe there is an increase in the number of refugees, and at the end of the day this will be a difficult challenge for Jordan, economically, socially and even politically,” he said. “We will soon begin feeling the consequences. The refugees will increase the poverty rate, and they will become a burden on the health care and education system. But this is a humanitarian disaster. We cannot abandon the Syrian people.”
Just northwest of Mafraq is Ramtha, an impoverished city across the border from Dara’a, birthplace of the rebellion, that has become a haven for Syrians. Jordanians in Ramtha have strong tribal and family ties with people in Dara’a. Many Syrians have taken shelter with relatives here.
Hussein al-Khozahe, a sociologist and expert in developmental studies at Al-Balqa Applied University in Amman, said the refugees had brought the conflict closer to their Jordanian hosts.
“When Jordanians listen to their stories, live with them and attend schools with them, the conflict is no longer something Jordanians only watch on television or read about,” he said. “It becomes very real.”
In response to the Arab Spring, the Jordanian government scrapped a rule requiring consent to hold rallies. Thousands of people have since taken to the streets to protest rising prices, poverty and unemployment.
“Jordanians will pay the price, and we will continue to worry about the permanency of these waves of refugees,” Mr. Khozahe said. “Politically, the situation is becoming more complex on the ground, which may prolong or even increase the humanitarian disaster.”
In this part of Jordan, smuggling has largely replaced a healthy cross-border trade in clothes, food and other goods. Sami Mugrabi, who owns a wholesale grocery shop in Ramtha, said he used to rely heavily on customers from Syria. Today his shop is mostly empty. “My livelihood has been destroyed and it is too difficult to send items to the border,” Mr. Mugrabi said. “Those who are fleeing the violence are not going back.”
The government has set up a temporary shelter in Ramtha for Syrians who crossed the border illegally, and the U.N. refugee agency provides help to those living there.
“We are providing food and non-food items including blankets, heaters, stoves, clothes, beds,” said Mr. Harper, of the U.N. refugee agency. He said that the assistance was not sufficient and that more needed to be done.
A report provided by the agency showed a significant increase in the numbers there. “I go in and out of the protected facility for refugees and I can tell you it’s difficult to find an empty room,” said Abu Hadi, 37, who fled Syria two months ago. Like other refugees interviewed, his last name has been withheld for his safety.
Although Jordan is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the U.N. refugee agency and the government signed an agreement in 1998 specifying that asylum seekers may stay in Jordan pending refugee status determination.
Lebanon and Turkey also continue to open their borders to refugees, but Human Rights Watch reported last week that Syria had placed land mines “near the borders with Lebanon and Turkey.”
Some Syrian refugees living in Ramtha and Mafraq described harrowing scenes. One of them, Abu Bakr, 43, crossed the border last summer. “On the way to Jordan’s border there is a lot of open space and there are also trees, even new land mines,” he said in a cold, cramped corner of his living room as his 5-year-old son sat next to him. “The worst thing is, if we are caught by the Syrian Army we would be executed on the spot.”
Although other refugees who crossed illegally corroborated such statements, his claims could not be independently verified.
Another refugee, Um Suheib, 28, spoke of worrying about her husband, who was wanted for participating in the uprising. “For two months, I lived in fear and I didn’t know where my husband was,” she said, seated with her three daughters in Ramtha.
“I only heard from him when he arrived in Jordan,” she said. “My husband was smuggled in, but I came later with my girls legally. Once I crossed into Jordan, I was not worried anymore.”