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New Goals For Women's Rights

Five years after a landmark U.N. conference set women's equality as an achievable goal, 189 nations agreed Saturday on new measures to accelerate the international campaign to reach it.

But women's rights activists said governments didn't go far enough with the 150-page platform, adopted in Beijing in 1995.

Despite fears that delegates would chip away at the Beijing platform, the weeklong U.N. Women's Conference ended Saturday with no backtracking. The new document includes tougher measures to combat domestic violence and sex trafficking, and to tackle the impact of HIV/AIDS and globalization on women.

But despite an all-night session, virtually no progress was made on the most contentious issues—including access to safe abortion, sexual rights, sexual orientation, and equal rights of inheritance.

That disappointed grass-roots groups, which had been lobbying for more specific goals and stronger action, especially on issues regarding sexuality and reproductive health.

"We regret that there was not enough political will on the part of some governments and the U.N. system to agree on a stronger document with more concrete benchmarks, numerical goals, time-bound targets, indicators, and resources aimed at implementing the Beijing platform," said a statement by the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University and the Women's Environment and Development Organization.

But U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Angela King, a special adviser on the advancement of women, said she was encouraged by the progress made.

"It was absolutely worth it," she said, after the delegates reached agreement after 5 a.m. "We have a very strong document which not only reaffirms Beijing and other relevant conferences on human rights and social development, but also moves forward," she said.

Delegates were scheduled to meet Saturday afternoon for a final committee meeting, and then to move to the General Assembly for approval of the document by consensus. Nearly a dozen countries said they had reservations about certain paragraphs of the document, and wanted to speak at the meeting.

The battle lines for the current conference—known as Beijing Plus Five—mirrored those at Beijing: the Vatican and a handful of Islamic and Catholic countries—including Libya, Algeria, Iran, Sudan and Nicaragua—against the West and hundreds of women's rights activists.

Attempts to include stronger language on access to abortions failed and references to sexual rights and sexual orientation were dropped.

The platform does say women have the right to "decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality…free of coercion, discrimination and violence."

Women's rights advocates said this constituted sexual rights, but conservative activists feared the term sexual rights could be interpreted as condoning homosexuality and other practices they regarded as deviant.

By Edith M. Lederer