Opponents of women's rights gain little ground at U.N. conference


Five years after a watershed conference in Beijing articulated what more than 180 nations agreed were universal rights of women, a weeklong follow-up meeting ended yesterday at the United Nations with no significant victories for opponents who have tried to reverse those gains.

An all-night session Friday into yesterday, capping a week of heated arguments, preserved a variety of women's rights, including the most contentious, that "women have the right to decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality" and should be able to do so without "coercion, discrimination and violence."

Around the world, this can mean something as basic as choosing a spouse or avoiding such customs as genital mutilation.

"I'm very happy that the dire predictions that there would be a rollback have proved false," said Angela King, the U.N. official in charge of women's advancement.

"We were determined to get a strong document that did not in any way diminish the gains women had achieved in Beijing," she said. "We were also determined to go beyond Beijing, and we did, despite the efforts of countries that made the process such an arduous one."

Although some Western and international women's groups failed in their efforts to expand definitions in the Beijing document to include more explicit homosexual rights, broad definitions of "family" and more clearly stated support for safe and readily available abortions, other issues were advanced.

Delegations from 180 nations, urged by about 1,200 nongovernmental groups, took strong stands on the trafficking of women and girls, who are sold or lured across borders by the sex trade or for domestic or industrial work that often amounts to wage slavery.

Delegates also agreed on principles that call for punishment of domestic violence, including marital rape, which some delegations had argued was a private matter not recognized as a crime in many nations. There were also calls to outlaw the killings of women whose families claim have shamed them, so-called "honor" crimes that have drawn attention to countries like Jordan and Pakistan.

U.N. officials and women's rights advocates say that this is the first time an international document has characterized these activities as crimes. Although the final agreement of the conference does not have the force of law, it may be used as a statement of international norms when trying to change the laws of nations.

The meeting's final declaration also demanded more attention to the HIV-AIDS epidemic, which in the five years since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing has begun to infect many more women, especially in Africa. There, women's organizations say, the sexual rights of women are a matter of life and death, when traditions within extended families or clans may force girls and women into sexual arrangements they cannot avoid with men whom they may know to be infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

As is almost inevitably the case when sensitive social issues are exposed to international debate, battle lines were drawn between conservative countries, largely Islamic or Roman Catholic, and more secular nations, though there was no fixed geographical pattern. Poland and Nicaragua, for example, have often been reticent on certain women's rights, although Europe and Latin America in general take a much more liberal stand, even on contraception and abortion.

Among Islamic nations, delegates said, Algeria, Iran, Libya, Pakistan and Sudan were most reluctant to advance women's rights. The opposition lobby got strong support from the Vatican, which attends such conferences based on its territorial possessions in Rome.

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