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Assault on Reproductive Rights and Gender Equality at Rio+20

SOURCE: AP/ Sakchai Lalit

A Myanmar woman works at a garment factory in Yangon, Myanmar.

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Rio+20—the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development being held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil—is renewing international conversations about how to simultaneously address poverty, protect the environment, and maintain balanced economic growth. If progress is to be made, the conference’s agenda must reflect that achieving gender equality is intimately tied to achieving these other goals as well as being a goal in and of itself. But as current negotiations stand, Rio risks losing an opportunity to embrace and strengthen the critical link between women’s rights, gender equality, and sustainable development.  

A draft agreement was reached this past Tuesday after lengthy and painstaking negotiations, but many are disappointed—not the least of which are those who support women’s equality. Country negotiators have been working over the past several months to complete an agreement to bring before the official high-level negotiations in Rio that began on June 20. In the process, the text of the draft agreement ballooned from an original 19-page document to one with hundreds of pages. But Tuesday’s trimmed-down version of just 49 pages represents the lowest common denominator. Appallingly, women’s reproductive rights and references to gender equality were a casualty of the paring. 

The United States, Norway, Finland, other governments, and women’s nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, that organized through the Women’s Major Group fought hard to include language ensuring reproductive rights for women and affirming gender equality in the Rio text. But the Holy See (the Vatican) led an opposition that ultimately prevailed in removing key sections supporting gender equality from the text. The result is that the language ensuring reproductive rights is completely eliminated from the text.

As the language from an earlier version of the text, dated June 2, clearly shows, the Group of 77—a negotiating bloc of developing countries at the United Nations known as the G-77—and the Holy See opposed the inclusion of language ensuring women’s reproductive rights. The final draft agreement text only commits to promote rather than ensure equal access of women to health care, education, basic services, and economic opportunities. Moreover, the reference to women’s reproductive rights was deleted in the draft agreement.

June 2 text

We are committed to ensure the equal access of women and girls to education, basic services, economic opportunities, and health care services, including addressing women’s sexual and reproductive health [and their reproductive rights, — G-77 reserves] and ensuring universal access to safe, effective, affordable, and acceptable modern methods of family planning. In this regard, we reaffirm our commitment to fully implement the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the key actions for the further implementation of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development. [Holy See reserve]

Draft agreement text

Gender equality and women’s empowerment–241:

We are committed to promote the equal access of women and girls to education, basic services, economic opportunities, and health care services, including addressing women’s sexual and reproductive health, and ensuring universal access to safe, effective, affordable, and acceptable modern methods of family planning. In this regard, we reaffirm our commitment to implement the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the key actions for the further implementation of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development.

Fighting for reproductive rights

The Holy See is a non-member-state permanent member of the United Nations that has been influential in equating women’s reproductive rights with abortion during the Rio conference.  “The Holy See has made many delegations argue that reproductive rights and health is [a] code word for abortion. It is not, never has been,” said Gita Sen from Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era, or DAWN, representing the Women’s Major Group. She spoke during a briefing by civil society organizations concerning the women’s sexual and reproductive health text. 

Indeed, reproductive rights and justice goes beyond contraception to ensure that women have full reproductive care, including maternity and labor care, family planning services, abortion care, and sexual health information and services. Reproductive justice considers education, economic, and other political and societal factors that limit women’s reproductive choices. Education, for example, provides more options for women to establish alternative livelihoods and attain economic security, which, in addition to delaying childbirth, can also improve the quality of life for themselves and their children.

Until women have the freedom to decide when to give birth, have access to the basic services and nutrition necessary for a healthy pregnancy, and can give birth to and then raise healthy children, it’s imperative that reproductive rights and justice be fully recognized and fought for. Certainly, that has been the case during the conversations in Rio. Disappointingly, those concerns were not ultimately reflected in the text. Sacha Gabizon, executive director of Women in Europe for a Common Future and a representative for the Women’s Major Group, lamented that negotiations on reproductive health and rights questioned the link between women’s rights and sustainable development, saying, “Every time we have to fight to keep the link.”

Currently, there are more than 7 billion people on the planet, and the United Nations projects that number will reach 9.3 billion by midcentury. Much of the population growth will be in developing countries where reproductive rights are sorely lacking, which also happen to be areas that are highly vulnerable to climate change. 

An unstable climate coupled with a lack of reproductive rights threatens future generations and puts countless lives at stake. Nowhere is this more evident than in Somalia. As we saw in 2011 during the worst drought in Somalia in more than 60 years, tens of thousands of people died due to the famine, most of them children. What’s more, one in five children in Somalia remains hungry and in danger of perishing. Unabated climate change means it’s a situation that will only get worse. Meanwhile in Somalia, the fertility rate is more than six births per woman, and it’s estimated that only 4.6 percent of Somali women use modern contraception.

According to the U.N. Population Fund, around 215 million women, or one in six women of reproductive age, want to delay or cease childbirth and do not have access to effective contraception. Subsequently, about 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned, and a quarter of those pregnancies are unplanned. If all women had access to effective contraception, one in three deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth could be prevented. 

It’s clear that reproductive rights are essential to improve health outcomes and to allow for the full participation of women in our economies. Furthermore, women’s vital role in sustainable development has long been recognized. The 1992 Rio Declaration, coming out of the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, acknowledged the need for the inclusion of women to meet the sustainable development goals. Principle 20 of the declaration states:

Women have a vital role in environmental management and development. Their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development.

Likewise, in 1995 the Beijing Declaration from the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women underscored that economic development and social development that empowers women and environmental protection are “interdependent and mutually reinforcing components of sustainable development.”

Yet Connie Hedegaard, EU commissioner for climate action, expressed concern and dismay at the lack of strong language in the draft agreement text and around women in particular during a U.N. Women Leaders Forum held during Rio+20. Commenting on the text, Hedegaard said that there was “a lot of ‘taking note, recognize that’ … and not a lot of ‘commit to, decide to’—that kind of wording.”

Unfortunately the gender text reflects the soft language that Hedegaard and others feared. An earlier version of the text from June 2, for example, says:

We resolve to ensure full and equal rights and access of women to productive resources through the rights to own property, inheritance, credit, and to financial and extension services along the entire value chain. [emphasis added]

The draft agreement text, however, is muted, stating:

We resolve to undertake legislation and administrative reforms to give women equal rights with men to economic resources, including access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, credit, inheritance, natural resources, and appropriate new technology. [emphasis added]

What’s the difference? Rather than “resolve to ensure full and equal rights and access of women to productive resources,” the agreed-to text only resolves “to undertake legislation and administrative reforms to give women equal rights with men to economic resources.” If that sounds like a good idea, just look at the recent failure of the U.S. Senate to advance fair pay legislation, again

Instead of the earlier language that would ensure “rights to own property, inheritance, credit, and to financial and extension services,” which came from the Beijing forum, the Rio+20 outcome text only calls for legislation to include “access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, credit, inheritance, natural resources, and appropriate new technology.” This may not seem like a significant difference but rights to own property, inheritance, and credit is much different than granting rights to have access to these resources. As Sen said, “Giving rights to access can be anything.”

Land rights for women are of critical significance for sustainable development. If women had the same access to resources, farm yields could increase from 20 percent to 30 percent, which would feed 100 million to 150 million people—children, women, and men who would otherwise go hungry. But only between 10 percent and 20 percent of women in developing countries have land rights. In addition, women hold fewer assets and face more difficulty attaining credit. Women’s empowerment is critical in transitioning to sustainable agricultural practices that can manage the sector’s large greenhouse gas contributions and ensure food security.

Women’s equality is integral to success. Policymakers at Rio have an opportunity to steer the future toward a more inclusive and prosperous economy for all. Progress won’t be made unless women’s rights are fully incorporated throughout—not just relegated as an item on the periphery. 

Rebecca Lefton is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.

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