Every year United Nations country delegations, mission representatives, and representatives from non-governmental organizations come to New York for the two-week long Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) meeting at the United Nations. This year’s 55th CSW produced setbacks in already agreed upon language from the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) established in 1995 around women’s rights, gender equality, sexual and reproductive health, education on sexuality, equal burden of care and responsibility in the home, among others. Many of the debates centered around disagreements about the terms “gender”, “gender mainstreaming”, “gender equality”, “gender based analysis”, “sexuality education”, “sexual and reproductive health”, “maternal health”, and “women’s rights.”
Opposition to these terms was strongly argued by conservative delegations from the Holy See, which acts and speaks for the Roman Catholic Church in public and policy spheres, as well as the Africa Group, which is chaired by the representative from Benin. Their arguments were sometimes supported by Iran, Syria, and Qatar. There was a lot of push back from Switzerland, the European Union (chaired by Germany), Turkey, Brazil, and Mexico, though the U.S. was notably absent in these discussion. Language on girls in the context of rights protections and without parental guidance provisions was almost completely removed. References to early marriage and early child bearing were completely removed. Gender equality as a term is now only used twice in the entire text.
The Holy See and the Africa group repeatedly asked for a “redefinition” of the term “gender”, to add “men and women” after this term, or to footnote reference to the definition included in the BPFA. They expressed concern that the word “gender” is being used to be inclusive of homosexuality, and they want to guard against that possibility and emphasize the context of the family. There was also a lot of opposition to the phrase “sexuality education.” Opponents of this phrase asserted that parents should choose the kind of education that should be given to their children, and that the best interest of the child shall be the “guiding principle of those responsible for his or her education and guidance, and that responsibility lies in the first place with the parents,” as stated in prior agreements.
Like much of what is happening in the United States around protecting women’s sexual and reproductive rights right now, the UN is also a battle ground over freedom to choose, particularly on issues of bodily integrity, sexual autonomy, and protection of human rights. As we look to the Commission on Population and Development, progressive governments will need to step up to the challenge and demonstrate that women’s and young people’s health and rights are not up for negotiation.
In early April, we will return to the UN with our colleagues from around the world for the 44th session of the Commission on Population and Development. This year’s theme is fertility, reproductive health and development, and we will be focusing on bringing young people’s voices to the table.