Conservatives Target Women and Girls at UN’s 55th Commission on the Status of Women

As some of you may know, governments gather at the United Nations in March for the annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). For two weeks, delegates meet to evaluate global progress on achieving the goals of the Beijing Platform for Action on gender equality, identify challenges, and formulate strategies to promote the advancement of women worldwide.

What you may not know is that at this year’s CSW, the sexual and reproductive rights of women and young people became the target of incredibly organized assaults by U.S.-based organizations.

Under the radar and over-the-top, these predominantly conservative and anti-choice groups descended upon the Commission and its participants in advance of the CSW to ensure that issues such as women’s rights, gender equality, sexual and reproductive health, and sexuality education, experienced major setbacks on the global scene.

Among the most blatant perpetrators was Family Watch International (FWI). Unable to wait until the meeting in March, they sponsored 26 UN delegates from 23 different countries to attend their first annual “Global Family Policy Forum” in Phoenix, Arizona. As their website proudly states, the January forum was organized specifically to provide UN diplomats that negotiate social and family issues at the UN two days of “expert presentations on family issues, briefing sessions and discussions on how to better protect and promote the family and family values at the UN.”

The content of the conference, which FWI lists on its website as “the single most important thing that Family Watch has ever done”, included sessions featuring “scientific and clinical evidence” that “homosexuality is not genetically determined” and that “in many cases, individuals who experience same-sex attraction can be helped by therapy”, as well as information on a searchable electronic database that would allow diplomats to quickly and easily access previously agreed upon “family-supportive language” from past UN documents.  Much of the time was spent developing strategies; discussing anti-woman, anti-choice tactics for the CSW and similar upcoming conferences; and opportunities for the diplomats to network, schmooze, and sightsee (including a trip to the Grand Canyon). Conference organizers are already planning a similar event for 2012, which they predict could “easily include diplomats from more than 50 countries”.

As a result of this conference and similar initiatives, advocates and delegates who oppose women’s rights and health in the global sphere were well prepared for the 55th CSW. Although relatively few in number, reps from the Holy See, Benin, Iran, and Syria voiced strong opposition, while the usual progressive allies such as the U.S. and Europe were less vocal.

“As a result of strong opposition at the 55th Session of the CSW, both inside and outside the negotiation room, progressive advocacy efforts failed to achieve strong reference to concepts including women’s empowerment, gender equality, and human rights in the agreed conclusions,” said Sarah Kennel, Program Officer for the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights. “Having participated in the CSW as a youth advocate on behalf of the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, opposition groups both out-numbered us and out-powered us throughout the negotiation process. As a result of their strong presence, we were forced to fight for the inclusion of already agreed upon (moderately progressive) language, rather than breaking boundaries and advocating for the inclusion of truly progressive language, with a focus on gender equality and human rights.”

The “controversial” language Kennell refers to includes concepts such as “gender”, “gender mainstreaming”, “gender equality”, “gender based analysis”, “sexuality education”, “sexual and reproductive health”, “maternal health”, and “women’s rights”, which have longstanding precedent at the UN by virtue of their presence in a number of agreed-upon UN documents and treaties. A statement by the  European Union (EU) delegation mirrors Kennell’s concerns:

“We note with disappointment the concerns expressed throughout the negotiations by some delegations with regard to concepts such as ‘gender’ and ‘gender stereotypes’. This language has been fully agreed in the past, including in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and is entirely consistent with efforts to promote the realization of gender equality. As such we were, and will remain, unwilling to go back to pre-Beijing concepts. Mr President, we hope that in the future, delegations can in fact move forward from agreed language and continue to further the overriding objective of the Commission, which is to accelerate and develop the full enjoyment and unhindered exercise of equal rights for women and girls all over the world.”

So what is to be done with the experience of this year’s CSW? We certainly can expect a bit of a bumpy ride.

“Looking ahead,” said Kenell, “it is clear that member states, NGOs and youth with progressive agendas will face increasing opposition when advocating for the inclusion of language related to gender equality, women’s empowerment, reproductive health and rights, comprehensive sexuality education and human rights.”

But the fight isn’t over yet.  Reflecting on this experience, the progressive youth movement needs to be better prepared and better funded. For Kennell, this involves “knowing the issues, knowing how to use international agreements, treaties and declarations that support our issues as advocacy tools and knowing how and when to work with ally member states.” By establishing stronger links and connections among progressive organizations, individuals, and networks, a strong movement can be build to advocate for the rights of all girls and women. The upcoming Commission on Population and Development will be a crucial site for the continued development of these issues.

To learn more about IWHC’s work at the UN, click here. To download the Agreed Conclusions in their entirety, click here.  To download the full EU statement on the Agreed Conclusion, click here.

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