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Twenty Years on From Seminal Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, it Appears it Was a False Dawn for Women's Rights Protection

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"Religion, tradition and custom have been dusted off and presented by the Vatican and governments as an excuse for violence against women."

On this very day, 20 years ago, the first UN meeting on human rights since the end of the Cold War took place.

When the agenda was released, the Global Campaign for Women's Rights saw that women's concerns were nowhere on the agenda. It was business as usual. They decided to challenge the utter marginalisation of women's human rights issues.

In the lead up to the conference, women from all parts of the world shared their stories of being victims of violence, violence that the state often ignored as merely a 'private' matter. Even when women were being raped in detention, it was seen as a private crime, not an act of torture. When I read the testimonies I am sickened at how many women's lives were - and still are - a struggle for simple survival in the face of routine violence that somehow is seen as par for the course, and therefore acceptable.

At the conference itself, women's activists organised a global tribunal on violations of women's rights which highlighted the persistent and systematic failure of the human rights system at the global, regional and national level to protect women's rights. Faced with these stories and the determination of activists to subvert business as usual, delegates acknowledged these truths too long denied. It did seem like a line in the sand. A victory.

Delegates from 171 countries came together and responded to the demands of women's rights activists from around the world. And as the conference came to an end there was a real feeling of hope: hope that it was finally being recognised that "human" was not synonymous with men, and that women's rights are human rights.

Further successes followed fast on the heels of the Vienna Conference. The 1994 population and development conference in Cairo brought sexual and reproductive rights to the fore. And by 1995, the fourth world conference on women in Beijing made women's rights its primary focus.

It felt like real progress was starting to happen. A Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women was adopted by the UN General Assembly in Dec 1993 and, in 1994, a special Rapporteur on Violence against Women was appointed at the UN Commission on human rights.

But as our current generation prepares to gather in Vienna for the anniversary meeting, I am struck by how badly those determined women have been failed.

The promise of true equality has been largely dashed by those who guard their privilege and abuse their power. The unholy alliance of the Vatican with states such as Russia and Syria has undermined the hopes raised in Vienna, Cairo and Beijing.

While there have been some major advances in terms of legal reform, statistics expose the hollowness of those reforms. No statistic is more damning than the fact that women own less than 1% of the world's property and account for 70% of the world's poorest.

We are facing a backlash, and the concept of gender equality is once again under attack. It is hard to believe but religion, tradition and custom were allowed to rear their ugly heads at the 2013 Commission on the Status of Women. They were dusted off and presented by some governments, including Iran, Russia, Nigeria and, of course, the Holy See, as a reason not only to undermine women's rights but also as a legitimate excuse for violence against women.

Before government officials engage in the self-congratulatory speeches that traditionally mark these occasions, each one should look at the facts and do some stock-taking. It is time to recommit to the promises of Vienna 1993. But instead of some sort of Groundhog Day repetition of the promises made then, this time we must act on those commitments.

There is now a broad acceptance that women's rights are human rights. We know too, that we are failing to protect those rights. It is vital that in Vienna 2013, a more concrete legacy is left for the protection of women, which goes beyond empty declarations, and challenges the reiteration of archaic and intolerable excuses for violence against women today. That would be a fitting tribute to the dedication of our 1993 forebears. Quite frankly we owe them a debt and, perhaps this is to be the hallmark of this generation, we have not yet made good on the payment.

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