Each year around March 8 (International Women’s Day), representatives of world governments come together to draw up a statement that is supposed to communicate the notion that women and men are equal. This has been a key tenet of international relations since the signing of the United Nations Charter in 1945, so one would think it would not be terribly controversial.
One would be wrong.
The UN Commission on the Status of Women, which has met each year since 1946, tries to set aspirational priorities for women’s equality, and it largely succeeds in doing so. However, for the past several years, members of the commission have disagreed so vehemently about what “equality” means that, in 2012, the meeting ended at an impasse. One week into the 2013 commission meetings, it seems possible that this year’s negotiations are headed down the same path.
This is all the more frustrating because the main theme of this year’s meeting is violence against women. This is not a new, obscure issue that should require more than two weeks’ discussion to reach an agreement about steps forward. Prevent, protect, prosecute, punish—it is not that complicated.
More to the point, violence against women requires urgent attention. At least 1 in 3 women has been beaten, forced to have sex, or otherwise abused at some point in her life. Most often the perpetrator is someone she knows, and frequently it is not a one-off incident. Furthermore, domestic violence contributes to a culture of violence; boys who witness their fathers beat up their mothers are, as adults, twice as likely to abuse their own partners as those who grew up in homes without violence.
Many politicians and government officials are also complicit in violence against women. In Egypt last month, parliamentarians tried to make the sexual assault of female protesters the responsibility of the women themselves, arguing that if they hadn’t been on the streets in the first place, they would never have been groped, harassed, and raped.
In Somalia, Lul Ali Asman Barake, who says she was gang-raped by police officers, was jailed for telling a journalist about her attack. Barake was released this week, but the journalist remains in jail.
And this past Monday, Kenyans were given the option of voting for a presidential candidate who is being sought by the International Criminal Court on charges that include orchestrating sexual violence against supporters of his political opponents in 2008.
In light of this, it is perhaps unsurprising that government officials have a hard time agreeing about how, and even if, to end violence against women—after all, some of them represent leaders who believe victims are at least as responsible as their perpetrators. Indeed, Russia, the Vatican, and Iran, whose representatives have reportedly derailed negotiations the most this year, all have recent records of punishing women for speaking out, demanding justice, and simply being female.
So I am not surprised that these negotiations have not gone smoothly. I am, however, appalled. And you should be too. Today, on International Women’s Day, contact your foreign ministry or head of government and tell him or her that you expect to see an agreement in New York next week. A consensus outcome at the Commission on the Status of Women may not necessarily lead to gender justice and equality. But without an agreement, it will be clear to perpetrators that individuals in charge are not planning to clamp down on abuse.