After Rio+20, Women's Voices Loud and Clear

While governments debated over the green economy and designed a roadmap for the United Nations to deliver on Sustainable Development, women’s and other social justice movements actively voiced their concerns for achieving gender equality, justice and sustainability at last month’s UN Conference on Sustainable Development (“Rio+20”) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Although the final Outcome Document “The Future We Want” (PDF) is weak overall, and in the last days of the negotiations was significantly weakened in the section dealing with the social pillar of sustainable development, women stayed the course and ensured that language around women’s and young people’s health and human rights was maintained and agreed upon as critical elements to achieve sustainable development.

“Women worked day and night, through speaking with the media, taking to the streets and protesting, lobbying governments, and educating other civil society actors. to have our voices heard and hold our governments accountable.”

Since the inter-governmental negotiations began in December 2011, feminist organizations were told by key countries, including Brazil and South Africa, that the Group of 77 (a group that represents “developing countries” in United Nations negotiations) would not break over differences of position on “controversial issues” such as gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights because “more important issues were at stake”.

Disappointingly, this was Brazil’s consistent position throughout the process as it sought to affirm its leadership within the Economic South and obtain gains on other issues such as the green economy and trade. Our allies remained vocal throughout the process and helped secure the language that we will use for enshrining reproductive health and human rights in future development agreements. These critical positions came from: Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay, Argentina, the United States, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, Israel and Mexico.

Among other things, the Outcome Document urges governments to fully implement their previous commitments “leading to sexual and reproductive health and the promotion and protection of all human rights in this context” and emphasize the “need for the provision of universal access to reproductive health, including family planning and sexual health and the integration of reproductive health in national strategies and programmes.”

Governments also committed to “reduce maternal and child mortality and to improve the health of women, men, youth and children” by achieving “gender equality and protecting the rights of women, men and youth to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality.” Finally, governments 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”.

These words did not appear in the final document easily. Women worked day and night, through speaking with the media, taking to the streets and protesting, lobbying governments, and educating other civil society actors. to have our voices heard and hold our governments accountable.

The overall assessment by social movements and organizations that participated in the Rio+20 process is that it fell short of making any real progress and commitments for addressing pressing and critical sustainable development needs. Against the backdrop of an unwieldy process, multiple and often competing agendas, it is unsurprising that the outcome lacked content and clarity.

Moving forward as the post-2015 development discussions take shape, and if Rio+20 is to serve as an indication of how this process will unfold, it is critical that women’s and young people’s voices are heard in this process, and that social movements continue to pressure their governments to uphold their commitments to achieving sustainable development, gender equality, poverty eradication, and the realization of human rights for all.

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