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UN Condemns Violence Against Women

Indian university students march during a protest march in New Delhi in December, following the gang-rape and murder of a young woman on a bus there.
UNITED NATIONS -- Muslim and Western countries have approved a new United Nations declaration aimed at combatting violence against women and girls.

The nonbinding declaration, adopted by consensus by the UN Commission on the Status of Women, says that violence against females cannot be justified or ignored by any "custom, tradition, or religious consideration."

The declaration also calls on countries to provide girls and women with sexual education and contraceptives.

The declaration was approved on March 15 despite reservations from the Roman Catholic Church, Iran, Russia, and other states.

Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood wields dominant political power, had claimed the declaration would "destroy society."

Women's rights advocates said approval of the declaration sets an important precedent in efforts to enshrine global rights for women.

Around 190 countries participated in the negotiations.

Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the New York-based International Women's Health Coalition, said the approved text was "ambitious."

"It's a good, ambitious text that takes a strong stand in addressing violence against women and girls, and we're happy to see it adopted," she said.

Opposition From Christian, Muslim Conservatives

Diplomats told RFE/RL that an "unholy alliance" of Iran, Russia, and the Vatican, as well as some African and Middle Eastern states, had pushed from the start to alter parts of the draft text, citing traditional or religious grounds.

A UN diplomat who requested anonymity said contentious issues included gay rights, sexual education for adolescents, access to contraception and abortion, and marital rape.

Kowalski said rights advocates would have liked to have seen the text include a call for women to be able to file a rape accusation against their husbands, as well as the condemnation of violence based on sexual orientation.

The approved text, however, does calls on governments to provide emergency contraception to women who have been raped. It also calls for provision of contraceptives and access to treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.

One of the additions requested by Egypt and other countries was a clause allowing states to "opt out" if the text conflicted with "traditional" practices.

Critics said such an addition would essentially render the document useless.

Kowalski said the approved text included a clause saying states should not use cultural or religious reasons to ignore violence against women.

"There's a very strong statement that says states have the obligation to condemn and respond to violence, and they shouldn't abuse culture, tradition or religion in this regard," she said.

Supporters say that although the declaration is nonbinding, it nonetheless carries political weight.

Radhika Balakrishnan, executive director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership, accused Russia of using the debate to bolster its own international political influence.

Egypt also drew ire from civil society groups for a statement released by the Muslim Brotherhood claiming that the declaration would "destroy" Egyptian society by giving women rights to manage family finances or travel without a husband’s approval.

The declaration was passed in the wake of outrage over recent incidents of horrific violence against females.

They include the October 2012, shooting of 15-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousafzai, a campaigner for girls’ education, by the Taliban, and the gang-rape and murder of a young Indian woman on a bus in New Delhi.