After two weeks of heated debate, liberal and conservative countries over the weekend approved a U.N. document to promote equality for women that reaffirms the sexual and reproductive rights of all women and endorses sex education for adolescents.
The 24-page final declaration approved by consensus on March 22 by the 45-member Commission on the Status of Women expresses deep concern that overall progress toward the U.N. goal of gender equality and empowerment of women remains "slow and uneven"
The commission said "the feminization of poverty persists" and reaffirmed that equality for women is essential for sustained economic development.
It called for equality, empowerment and human rights for women to be a major plank in new U.N. development goals expected to be adopted next year.
For more progressive countries, there was relief that there was no back-pedaling on international recognition of women's reproductive and sexual rights and access to health services in the final document.
It calls for "universally accessible and available quality comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care services, information and education."
This should include "safe and effective methods of modern contraception, emergency contraception, prevention programs for adolescent pregnancy ... (and) safe abortion where such services are permitted by national law," the document says.
Egyptian minister and women's rights activist Mervat Tallawy, who led the country's delegation, said the final document reaffirmed all the gains women made at the 1994 U.N. population conference in Cairo and the 1995 U.N. women's conference in Beijing.
"We will never give in to the prevailing web of conservatism against women in all regions of the world," Tallawy said to thunderous applause. "We shall not allow fundamentalists and extreme groups to disarm women from their rights."
"I am speaking for all the women of the world. We will continue to struggle for our rights," Tallawy concluded to sustained applause that was finally cut off by the chair.
Delegates said the final vote was delayed because Russia at the last minute tried to insert a reference to sovereignty. It did not succeed.
Conservative countries did succeed in blocking any reference to different forms of the family, or to problems that women face because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The document recognizes the family as a contributor to the development of girls and women.
U.S. representative Terri Robl welcomed the final conclusions and the commission's "commitment to fighting discrimination and prejudice, which for too long has denied many women and girls the ability to contribute to economic growth and development."
But she expressed regret that the commission "did not explicitly acknowledge the vulnerabilities confronting women and adolescents as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity."
On the sensitive issue of sex education, the document calls for the development and implementation of educational programs for human sexuality, "based on full and accurate information, for all adolescents and youth ... with the appropriate direction and guidance from parents and legal guardians."
Among those expressing reservations about sex education after the document was approved were Qatar, Malta, the Holy See and Pakistan.
The commission also called for an end to early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation. Qatar asked for a definition of "early."
Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the International Women's Health Coalition, said: "The commission recognized that sustainable and meaningful development must address the root causes of gender inequality, which deny women and girls an education, the right to make decisions about their bodies and childbearing, to decent employment and equal pay, and to live free of violence."
"We have achieved what we came to do against great odds and the determined attempts by the Holy See and a few conservative countries to once again turn back the clock on women's rights," Kowalski said.