Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Gender Equality, Vienna, 5-6 November 2009

By Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff

As I prepared for the OSCE meeting, I was fully aware that we would encounter strong opposition from most participants. However, the amount that we as a group were able to achieve took me by surprise — it was so much more than we would ever have thought possible.
That we were not applauded is obvious. Yet there were many in the room who covertly (or sometimes even overtly) agreed with us. We opened doors, doors that were previously shut and bolted. No one ever put the topic of Islam on the table, most likely out of fear and for the sake of political correctness. The OSCE is, after all, closely associated with the EU Fundamental Rights Agency and the Council of Europe. The former is responsible for some very restrictive laws that stifle freedom of opinion within the EU.
The events at the meeting can best be described by using the format of a drama in several acts.
The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), based in Warsaw, organizes three annual supplementary human dimension meetings. (For an explanation of the term “human dimension”, consult my earlier reports about the OSCE, which include a historical overview.) These meetings always take place in Vienna, whereas the annual conference is held in Warsaw.
The third and last meeting this year focused on the topic of gender equality, with a special focus on combating violence against women. A worthy topic, about which there is much to be said from our perspective.
The characters in this drama are numerous: First, the officials from ODIHR. They were in charge of accepting the submission of official papers with interventions and recommendations. We will return to them later.
Second, the moderators of the Civil Society Round Table and the Sessions, as well as the introducers who set the stage for each session by providing examples of good practices.
Third, the representatives of the participating States and associated States as well as international organizations.
And fourth, we, the representatives of the various more or less non-governmental organizations. It is worth mentioning that the OSCE is the only international organization where the representatives of civil society can discuss their issues on equal terms with participating States.

November 5, 2009
The first event of the first day concerned civil society. The ODIHR organized a Civil Society Roundtable in order “to present the purpose and scope of the meeting; to discuss in more detail the role and contributions that civil society can make to the event; to give civil society representatives the opportunity to network and better coordinate their interventions and recommendations.”
The roundtable included a thorough presentation of the purpose, protocol and good practices of round tables and the contributions that NGOs can make, as well as participant introduction. The CSO (civil society) representatives then met in “three groups divided along the key themes of the meeting (Protection of Victims of Gender-based Violence; Investigation and Prosecution of Perpetrators of Violence against Women; and Prevention of Violence against Women) to discuss and share thoughts on their potential contributions.” I acted as rapporteur for the meeting on prevention of violence against women and was thus able to steer the talk in the right direction.
The three dominant topics of the discussion were education, family, and Islam. The key to raise awareness of violence against women is to start young, i.e. in schools. In addition, healthy families are able to teach children from childhood about how parents treat each other.
We added that Christian values are reflected in our secular laws, while violence stems from some religious groups. Mission Europa added that secular laws must be reflected in religious practices. A representative of a Kyrgyz NGO weighed in, saying that religion has the potential to be a positive force and that no religion promotes violence. There are, according to the Kyrgyz, some religions that show a large division between men and women.
A recommendation to the OSCE was put forward: There needs to be clear wording in laws. Religion must never be an excuse for violence.
The Kyrgyz representative told the group about the difficulties they face when trying to connect with religious leaders. Kyrgyzstan is a predominantly Muslim country, where the main problem lies with the religious leaders, whose cooperation is urgently needed. Since 2008, religious leaders have been issuing marriage certificates which are not accepted by the secular government. The representative added also that civil marriage grants equal rights to both the husband and the wife, while the religious marriage does not. Rather, it focuses on and empowers men, as only men can declare divorce. The Kyrgyz representative’s recommendation to the OSCE: Civil law must supersede religious law.

The discussion was helpful for our cause because we were able to table the word Islam for the first time. Up until then, we had always shied away from using the I-word. It was always about “certain religious groups”. Mission Europa boldly asked the Kyrgyz representative what religion we were talking about, and – boom! – there it was. The I-word!

At the end of the civil society roundtable the three rapporteurs delivered their statements summing up the discussion. A delegate of a Bosnian NGO, Sabiha Husi?, as well as a delegate from Kyrgyzstan took the floor and said: “We are against Islam being seen as the main source for violence, as Islam cherished human values.” CARE Austria weighed in that we should not mix the perpetrator’s background with the act of violence itself. In their experience with migrants there is no religious background in violence.

Read it all here.


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