Never before has a U.N. document tackled the topic of homosexuality. Lesbians are now wondering whether this international women’s meeting will also end with silence on the subject.
Heading into the final full day of the Fourth World Conference on Women, delegates were still divided over the issue of asking for a ban on discrimination against lesbians, conference organizers said Wednesday.
Delegates from 189 countries worked into the early hours today on the conference platform, a sweeping call to improve the lives of women worldwide. The full conference is to vote on the platform Friday before the meeting ends.
The conference platform is not legally binding, but is expected to serve as a guide to governments.
Late Wednesday, negotiators reaffirmed a woman’s right to sexual freedom. But 23 countries - all predominantly Muslim or Roman Catholic - either said they would lodge objections or issue statements with their own interpretations.
The provision calls for women to be able to make sexual choices without “violence, coercion or discrimination.” Delegates say the phrasing is meant to stretch across a range of cultures and situations, covering girls subjected to ritual genital mutilation as well as battered wives.
Several nations said they might lift their objections to the wording if a footnote were added, saying that all issues of reproductive health must be guided by religious, cultural and traditional values. Critics argue that these phrases are often used to restrict human rights.
During nearly two weeks of talks, participants say many previously taboo subjects have come out into the open. One of them is homosexuality.
But even if delegates are ready to talk about lesbian rights, they might not be prepared to act on them yet.
“I wouldn’t say (I’m) optimistic,” conference secretary-general Gertrude Mongella said when asked about prospects for the provision’s approval. She said she wanted to wait for the outcome of the talks.
Earlier, conference spokeswoman Therese Gastaut said the subject was uncharted territory at such a gathering.
“The difficulty lies in the fact that it’s the first time this is being discussed at the U.N. level,” she told reporters. “All the implications have to be taken into account … they’re very intricate.”
Earlier in the day, negotiators resolved a dispute over women’s inheritance rights, agreeing that governments should enforce legislation that guarantees both sexes “equal rights to succession and equal rights to inherit.”
Delegates from many African countries made inheritance rights one of their top priorities at the conference. In some traditional societies, women are left with nothing if their husbands die.
But the issue was sensitive: Muslims insisted the language be phrased so as not to violate Islamic law giving men a greater inheritance share.
One agreement began unraveling Wednesday night - a statement urging the world to spend more to improve the lives of women. More than half a dozen delegations expressed opposition to it and the dispute was referred to a small negotiating committee.
Amid all the disputes, Mongella said, it’s important not to forget the women who were suffering.
“I’m sure that as we are speaking here, there are so many women who’ve lost their lives these two weeks because of so many different reasons, which we are trying to resolve in this document,” she said.
“To them it’s not the discussions. To them it’s the health, the water, the food - whatever language we use, to them that’s the bottom line.”