Earth Summit Delegates Refuse to Recognize Women's Reproductive Rights
At Rio+20, the "Earth Summit" taking place in Brazil, the slogan is "The Future We Want."
What "We" are they talking about?
Certainly not the more than 200 million women in the U.S. and many developing countries who lack access to voluntary family planning. That has become abundantly clear as the summit prepares to wrap up without including either family planning or a broader agenda for gender equality, sexual and reproductive health, and women’s empowerment in the primary summit agreements.
This refusal to acknowledge reproductive rights as a core tenet of sustainability is outrageous. It also flies in the face of previous UN conferences that supported family planning for a host of human and environmental rights. Indeed, the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994 was a watershed moment when women’s rights advocates, demographers and 179 governments came together to design a new model for development that made the empowerment and health of women and girls a top priority. Cairo transformed a term that few people knew—reproductive rights—into a concept recognized around the world. The ICPD not only affirmed the right of every girl and woman to quality sexual and reproductive health care and freedom from discrimination, it underscored its centrality towards achieving a harmonious and sustainable environment.
Several global processes—including a twenty-year review of progress towards achieving the Programme of Action that emerged out of Cairo—are happening within the next few years, all with implications for the future of sexual and reproductive health and rights. But in spite of its success, Cairo has not been fully implemented. Resources have fallen short and coercive practices have survived in some countries. Throughout the world, women and girls continue to face violence and inequality and lack access to sexual and reproductive health services. In this context, women activists in Rio are asking for increased accountability from governments towards promises they have made, plus the resources necessary to implement these actions.
I interviewed Dr. Carmen Barroso, Regional Director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region, and Musimbi Kanyoro , CEO and President of the Global Fund for Women, just as they were leaving to attend Rio. Earlier today, I conducted a follow-up interview by email to give you all a sense of what's transpired at the summit.
1) How would you both describe the reaction to the issues you are raising from the delegates attending Rio?
Musimbi: We’ve seen push-back on several levels. For example, use of the word “rights” in the context of reproductive health has been a real hot-button. Why? One reason is because many people equate rights with abortion or homosexuality. The Holy See [the Pope and the Catholic Church] is very well organized. Is it that the Holy See prefers not to see the human rights of women or doesn’t it believe the human rights of women are holy enough? In light of the allegations within the Catholic Church around the sexual abuse of children, what moral authority does it have to lobby against women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights? (Musimbi Kanyoro is pictured at left.)
Carmen: Our view is simple: Sexual and reproductive rights and health cannot be separated from sustainable development. Securing universal access to sexual and reproductive health care services—one of the targets of the Millennium Development Goals—is as vital as education to ensuring global economic vitality. We are not seeking to erase environmental concerns from the global agenda nor are we discounting the urgent task of mitigating global warming. Rather, we are asking for the inclusion of health as a key element of sustainable development; a commitment to promoting gender equality and human rights; and the inclusion of sexual and reproductive rights and health within the Sustainable Development Goals.
2) What is transpiring at Rio right now?
Carmen: After three days of intense and long negotiations, a final outcome document has been approved. We were able to secure references to Cairo and Beijing, two landmark agreements on sexual and reproductive health and rights, and acknowledgement that family planning is essential for women’s health and equality. However, there is no reference to reproductive rights in the final agreement and no recognition of the intersection between population dynamics, reproductive health and rights and sustainable development.
Overall, it was disheartening to say the least to see the lack of recognition of women’s sexual and reproductive rights and the critical role women’s equality plays in ensuring sustainable development. It bears repeating time and time again that as long as women don’t have sustainable lives, there will not be, and cannot be, global sustainability.
3) What specific actions are you asking delegates to Rio to take on family planning and reproductive rights? Do they need to vote on a particular platform or plank?
Carmen: In terms of next steps, member states will sign a consensus agreement on various voluntary commitments related to sustainability. There will be no vote.
4) Corporate sponsors have made commitments to help communities fight malaria, conserve water, purify water, and shift to cleaner cookstoves. Have you targeted specific companies that could support family planning?
Carmen: Many of our Member Associations work closely with governments and the private sector in delivering sexual and reproductive health care services throughout the Caribbean and Americas. In Brazil, for example, our Member Association Sociedad Civil Bem-Estar Familiar no Brasil, or BEMFAM has a long history of working with the government and private sector to increase access to vital health services—including contraception, care during pregnancy and comprehensive sexuality education—among poor, marginalized, and youth populations.
Musimbi: There are governments that support us, like the UK. There are already plans for a meeting in July between the UK equivalent of USAID and the Gates Foundation. They want to invest 140 million dollars in this work. But still, we must be vigilant to ensure we don’t get sidetracked. One of the challenges is that often business places a heavier emphasis on the pure economics or technology aspects. Those considerations can push the critical social components to the sidelines—out of sight, out of mind. Our role is to keep the social components like health and reproductive rights in sight and top of mind.
5.) The draft of an agreement that will be presented on Friday has already hit the streets—with weak language that lacks accountabilities, measurements or timelines. Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace has taken to calling the summit Rio MINUS 20. I have reviewed the draft and must agree—no way would anyone come away thinking that women’s health and reproductive rights are important, relevant or included to this agreement. What is the point of the "agreement"?
Musimbi: Twenty years ago, Gro Brutland convened the Rio summit that became known for its environmental agenda. We all agreed that the empowerment of women and making sexual and reproductive health a reality for women is the simplest path to a sustainable earth.
Neither Gro Bruntland nor any of the women who participated two decades ago were apologetic about bringing what is known as the "Cairo" agenda to Rio. The gains we achieved in 1994 are threatened. Organized religious groups want to change the language and message of the ’94 conference, turn back the clock and stifle gains women have made since and because of ICPD. They claim they don’t see the relationship between the empowerment of women, the environment, and reproductive health. There is plenty of data, which we have shared-and know they have seen- showing the links and outcomes. So, their claims of ignorance don’t hold water. We will not allow these groups and individuals to snatch the rights and gains away from us.
6). Before you left for Rio, you said people shouldn't expect perfection out of these kinds of meetings because they are only a step. You said people need to take what comes out and hold their local representatives accountable. With such weak language coming out of Rio+20, what are people supposed to hold their leaders accountable for?
Musimbi: The fact that sexual and reproductive rights are not on the Rio+20 agenda is really backsliding and a deterrent to sustainable development, the economy and to education. Women need to start organizing to call their governments to accountability.
7) What is next?
Musimbi: We will keep organizing well beyond the confines of this conference. There are tens of thousands of us! Collectively we can make a lot of noise, change minds and policy. It’s kind of like our version of “occupy.” We’re going to occupy Rio beyond 20.