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The United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC) adopted a draft resolution last week that is being criticized for “watering down” language that protects victims of sexual violence globally. Canada chairs the negotiations of the UN’s Human Rights Council resolution on violence against women. Activists reprimanded Canada for putting forth proposals that are regressive and a threat to women’s health.

Previously renowned as a leader on the theme of violence against women, this year Canada prevented the inclusion of numerous key recommendations.

Groups such as Amnesty International and Action Canada for Population and Development (ACPD) condemned Canada for ignoring rape survivors’ right to access essential services and comprehensive sexuality education. Neha Sood from ACPD told that, fundamentally, “the first draft does not make explicit links between sexual violence and sexual and reproductive health issues,” calling it a “glaring omission.” Comprehensive sexuality education is viewed as a key prevention strategy that can help empower girls and reduce gender-based violence.

Canada has championed resolutions around violence against women since the 1990s. The recent shift in language exposes the current government’s dogmatic beliefs about sexual and reproductive health and impedes progress globally. “Once again, we see the government of Canada exporting its conservative ideology internationally, to the detriment of millions of survivors of sexual violence who need access to these essential services,” says Sandeep Prasad, Executive Director of ACPD.

Sexual violence is a consistent threat for women globally and at home. According to Prasad, as many as 7 in 10 women experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes, and, globally, 50 per cent of sexual assaults are committed against girls under 16. In Canada, Aboriginal women are five times as likely to die of violence than other women their age.

Previously, Canada has excluded funding for safe abortion services and family planning in its international aid budget under the Muskoka Initiative. Pressure from civil society groups saw the inclusion of family planning, but there remained limited emphasis on sexuality education and abortion services — even where they are legal.

As G8 leaders gather in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland this week, violence against women in conflict is a significant area of focus. Canada has pledged $5 million dollars in funding, but remains ambiguous about how to implement sexual and reproductive services.

Significantly, UN HRC resolutions are important in framing future policy debates and funding priorities. “This is not about a piece of paper being circulated at the United Nations — this is an important international decision that sets the ground for Canada’s policies on sexual and reproductive rights and funding priorities both at home and abroad,” said Béatrice Vaugrante, Director General of Amnesty International’s francophone branch in Canada. 

Jessica Ernst and Magic, near Rosebud, Alberta

Sana Malik

Sana Malik is a writer with extensive experience in international and community development. Born in the UK to Pakistani immigrants, she grew up between London, UK and the East Coast of Canada. She...