In recent decades, gender equality movements have achieved monumental victories. From expanding access to safe and legal abortion to promoting LGBTQI rights and mainstreaming the notion of gender diversity, these hard-fought gains demonstrate the enduring power of collective action to secure human rights for all.
At the same time, progress on key issues related to gender and sexuality has set off a global countermovement. Religious fundamentalists, far-right conservatives, and anti-abortion activists are mobilizing to roll back sexual and reproductive rights, united under the banner of opposing so-called “gender ideology.”
First invented by the Vatican as early as 1984, the term “gender ideology” is both misleading and insidious. It is a catch-all phrase deployed in conservative circles to demonize feminist and queer theory, and social movements that seek to challenge harmful gender norms and change patriarchal power structures.
In essence, “gender ideology” is nothing more than a right-wing marketing ploy—a dangerous conspiracy theory based on fear, not fact, that justifies discrimination against women and gender diverse people. These campaigns frame the achievement of human rights as antithetical to “traditional” social values. At the same time, they appropriate the language of human rights and science in support of their hateful, regressive agenda. They target a wide spectrum of issues, including comprehensive sexuality education, abortion, same-sex marriage, surrogacy and assisted reproductive technologies, and the rights of transgender people.
These anti-human rights crusaders—many of whom can be tied to dark money flows from extreme Christian groups in the United States—are closely aligned with far-right nationalists and gaining political power in countries where strong fundamentalist blocs already exist. In Poland, for instance, the self-proclaimed “anti-genderism” movement enabled the rise of the far-right Law and Justice Party, whose relentless efforts to restrict access to abortion have sparked mass feminist protests across the country.
Alarmingly, ultraconservative leaders and politicians also adopt anti-rights language in order to support nativist, nationalist agendas. Feminist and LGBTQI activists, along with migrants and other marginalized groups, are often painted as outsiders that threaten the culture, religion, and traditions of societies, exploiting fears of change. Across Europe and beyond, far-right populist parties employ this language to further an agenda that discriminates against immigrants, women, and LGBTQI individuals. In Kenya, a court decision to uphold legislation criminalizing same-sex relations was defined by homophobic arguments relating to family structure and Christian identity.
The threat presented by anti-rights actors extends across the world and is particularly acute in Latin America. In Peru, social conservatives and the religious right launched the campaign “Don’t Mess with My Children” to remove positive lessons about gender and sexuality from the national school curriculum; the campaign later emerged in other countries, including Argentina and Brazil. In Colombia, the 2016 peace deal between the government and FARC was rejected by voters due, in part, to an anti-gender campaign that stoked fear about the participation of LGBTQI groups in peace negotiations and perceived threats to so-called “family values.” In his inaugural speech, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro claimed that his administration would “combat gender ideology and rescue our values.” He quickly made good on that promise by removing LGBTQI protections from the mandate of Brazil’s human rights ministry as one of his first acts in office. And, he repeated this rhetoric at a joint press conference with US President Donald Trump at the White House asserting, “Brazil and the United States stand side-by-side…against gender ideology.”
The World Congress of Families—held in Verona, Italy in March—exemplifies the global reach of this movement and the insidious connections between authoritarian governments, nationalists, and anti-rights activists that seek to roll back the gains of the last decades. Formed in 1997 by members of the US religious right and Russian academics, the World Congress of Families has promoted a “culture war” in which they claim women’s and LGBTQI rights threaten Christian society. This rhetoric was mirrored at the Make Families Great Again conference—hosted by the Hungarian government and attended by Trump administration officials—where attendees promoted policies to encourage women to get married and have more babies.
IWHC has seen firsthand the dangerous influence of these groups in global spaces. At the United Nations, anti-abortion advocates are staking out alliances with socially regressive countries and hosting deceptively titled events about “protecting femininity” and the “rights of children” during major meetings on women’s rights. One particularly egregious gambit was the appearance of the “Free Speech Bus,” a motorcoach with hateful, heteronormative slogans written on the side, outside the UN headquarters in New York. The bus has also made stops in Kenya, Germany, France, Italy, Colombia, Chile, and Mexico, among others.
Our grantee partners work on the frontlines of the fight for gender equality. Their ability to overcome the deceptive campaigns funded by religious fundamentalists attests to the power of coalition-building and sustained advocacy. Promsex, a longtime advocate for Peruvian women’s rights, continues to push back against the increasingly hostile tactics of anti-rights activists and recently won a defamation suit against a major Catholic news agency. In Kenya, after notorious hate group CitizenGo pressured the government to prohibit Marie Stopes International from offering abortion services, our grantee partner TICAH successfully organized and advocated to lift the ban.
Despite the concentrated efforts of anti-rights groups, feminists continue to make gains by directly confronting this hateful ideology. Time and again, we see that the momentum toward gender equality is unstoppable and that the feminist movement is fearless. While anti-rights groups claim that the expansion of human rights to all is a threat, the true threat lies in the ideology espoused by these actors—a worldview that upholds the oppression of bodies and sexualities, and that clings to the outdated notion of gender as a binary and biology as destiny.
IWHC knows that this battle is far from over and will continue to advocate, support women’s organizations, and strengthen the global feminist movement until all people, everywhere, have autonomy over their bodies, lives, and health.
Photo: Grzegorz Żukowski