Women’s advocates claimed victory today as two measures that had faced stiff opposition from anti-abortion and conservative delegations were approved. The Working Group I, which deals with health issues and other matters, approved paragraph 107 (k) which addresses women’s freedom from sexual violence and coercion; and urges nations to review laws which punish women who undergo illegal abortions.
Paragraph 97 had been negotiated in closed committee meetings for nearly three days over the weekend. Conservative delegations had opposed any recognition of women’s “right” to sexual autonomy. The compromise language was developed under the leadership of the contact group chair from Barbados. It substitutes the phrase “sexuality” for the more controversial phrase “sexual rights”.
All delegations in the closed committee meeting were reported to be in agreement on the questions of women’s freedom from rape, incest, sexual coercion, sexual harassment. The problems arose over questions of whether the phrase sexual rights included sexual relations outside of marriage, and lesbian sexual relationships. The European Union (EU) raised objections and suggested additional language which would have strengthened the language on women’s sexual rights.
Upset by this last minute development, other delegations pressured EU to compromise, but the EU insisted it could not support the more conservative language on women’s sexual rights. Iran then noted that if EU disrupted the orderly flow of proceeding, it too had additional language the Islamic countries would like to propose.
During a tense fifteen minute recess, EU consulted within its delegation. Several EU member states were reported to object to anything which did not include the phrase sexual rights. Suggestions that inserting the phrase “individual” into the document would accomplish the same purpose were rejected.
After the recess, the Chair gaveled the paragraph through as originally proposed by the Barbados-chaired committee, ending the tense Sunday night session.
The final language which was adopted by Working Group I Monday morning is: “The human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. Equal relationships between women and men in matters of sexual relations and reproduction including full respect for the integrity of the person, require mutual respect, consent and shared responsibility for sexual behaviour and its consequences.”
Women’s rights advocates saw the language as an advance over the Cairo platform, which did not include any mention of sexual rights. At the Social Summit in Copenhagen, no platform language adopted mention sexual health.
A number of members noted their intention to take reservations on paragraph 97 including Libya, Iraq, the Vatican, Malta, Equador, and the Philippines.
On abortion, the same working group considered language which addresses the problems of women who have health complication following illegal abortions. In many countries, criminal laws prevent hospitals and doctors from providing medical services to women suffering complications from illegal abortions, and require the woman to be charged with criminal violations if she seeks medical attention.
Paragraph 107 (k) urges countries to consider reviewing laws which contain punitive measures against women who have undergone illegal abortions. A key Cairo platform provision declaring unsafe abortion a public health concern was adopted as well. Only a very few delegations who traditionally follow the Vatican’s hard line on all family planning and women’s health measures objected to the language.