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UN: Women's Conference Sees Progress On Rights Overshadowed By Violence

Delegates at the United Nations have begun a review of the efforts to improve women's rights 10 years after a Beijing conference set out goals for achieving global equality for women. Speakers on the first day of a two-week session cited clear areas of advancement but raised concern about the impact of threats like trafficking, civil wars, and religious fundamentalism. Public consciousness about women's rights has risen significantly but some UN officials expressed frustration at the lack of action to stop some of the most barbaric abuses.

United Nations, 1 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The need to protect women from violence is now enshrined in conventions, UN Security Council resolutions and increasingly in national legislation worldwide.

But in too many cases, those commitments have not been translated into action.

That is one of the messages emerging from the first day of the UN's two-week conference to review action points adopted 10 years in Beijing aimed at achieving equality for women.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a speech opening the conference yesterday, cited progress such as generally improved life expectancy and fertility rates. A higher amount of girls are enrolled in primary education, he said, and more women are earning an income than ever before.

But Annan noted other areas where conditions are deteriorating.

"We have also seen new challenges emerge. Consider the trafficking of women and children -- an odious but increasingly common practice. Or the terrifying growth of HIV/AIDS among women -- especially young women," Annan said.
"During the Balkan conflict, at least 20,000 Muslim girls and women were also raped, with teenage girls particularly targeted. In Myanmar, in Uganda, in East Timor, the bodies of women and girls were and are being violated as part of battle."

The review of the Beijing conference brings together thousands of delegates from governments and nongovernmental organizations. Their purpose is to affirm the plan of action which called for governments to end discrimination in education, health care, politics, employment, inheritance rights, and other areas. The conference also provides a forum for delegates to share experiences on promoting gender equality.

The problem of trafficking in women -- afflicting states from Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia -- is likely to generate much discussion. Hundreds of thousands of women and girls are believed to be trafficked across borders annually and forced into sexual or labor exploitation.

The U.S. delegation is preparing to introduce a proposal during the two-week session that suggests challenging legal prostitution would reduce demand for trafficked women.

Two top officials with the UN's children's fund (UNICEF) yesterday sought to draw attention to what they say is a rampant, neglected problem of abuse of women in war zones.

The deputy director of UNICEF, Rima Salah, told a news conference that rape is used as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other African states. It is used to undermine the morale of entire communities and in some places rates of HIV/AIDS infection have risen significantly where combatants have committed mass rape on civilians.

Salah said rape as a tactic has also been used outside of Africa. She referred to its widespread use in the Bosnian war, where it was later designated a war crime by the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

"During the Balkan conflict, at least 20,000 Muslim girls and women were also raped, with teenage girls particularly targeted. In Myanmar, in Uganda, in East Timor, the bodies of women and girls were and are being violated as part of battle. This kind of violence is not collateral damage. It's a war crime," Salah said.

UNICEF director Carol Bellamy said too many government leaders respond with apathy to such violations, leaving them unpunished. The problem has worsened during her 10 years as UNICEF chief, Bellamy said.

"Until we stand up and first of all shine the light on it, until we identify the countries where it's happening, until women feel they can be protected enough to speak out, which they do not feel -- women and girls -- these days, we're not going to be able to do very much," Bellamy said.

The issue of violence of all forms against women will be the subject of a symposium today focusing on Muslim states. The organizer of the discussion is Women's Learning Partnership, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization.

The organization's president is Mahnaz Afkhami, a former Iranian minister of women's affairs. She tells RFE/RL that the Muslim world, like much of the world, has seen progress as well persistent problems for women.

"On the one hand you've had a resurgence of extremism that has been using religion and culture in order to, in some ways, subjugate women and to change the balance of power even further in favor of men and that of course is one of the underlying causes of violence in general. And on the other hand and [running opposite] to this particular development, you've also had an extraordinary development of women's skills-building, women's managerial training, educational possibilities," Afkhami says.

Afkhami says a rise in the number of educated women with access to technology and growing civil society has improved their ability to pressure governments to respond to their concerns.

She notes Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's recent push for legislation proposing the death penalty for killing women in the name of honor, which is seen as a step toward progressive laws in the country.

She also cited Morocco's new family law supporting women's equality and said there were positive trends in Turkey and Malaysia as well.