Beijing+25: US Objections Can’t Stifle Progress in Asia-Pacific

This blog is the third in our series on the Beijing+25 process, providing analysis on the second regional meeting that took place in Bangkok, Thailand, November 2019. Over the next few weeks, IWHC will continue the Beijing+25 series. Follow along, here.

The room was filled with anticipation as governments and women’s rights organizations gathered in the plenary hall at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) to adopt the Asia-Pacific Declaration on Advancing Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: Beijing+25 Review.

The Negotiations

Governments had negotiated through the night to come to agreement on a forward-looking set of commitments on gender equality and women’s rights for the region. But the United States—who didn’t bother to stay for the long night of negotiations—objected and called for a vote. The reason? The US, in their own words, will “not support the use of the terms sexual and reproductive health, reproductive rights, safe termination of pregnancy, or any other term that implies that access to legal abortion should be included in health services.”

Though calling for a vote may appear an unremarkable action, it is frowned upon in the halls of the UN, where collaboration, compromise, and consensus are the name of the game. Governments typically come to the table with their positions and work to find as much common ground as possible. Those with outlying positions are expected to join the consensus and register any reservations they have rather than call for a vote, which is seen as an act of hostage-taking—an affront to the diplomatic process and to the countries that have given ground in order to achieve something that they all agree, on balance, would result in progress for the world. Feminist activists play a key role in ensuring that consensus reflects the boldest outcome possible by providing advice and evidence to governments, working with progressive countries to keep ambition high, and serving as a watchdog, holding governments accountable.

In the end, the region’s 38 countries—including Afghanistan, China, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia—voted to adopt the declaration and uphold women’s and girls’ rights. The US was the sole country to vote against the declaration—the entire agreement, not just on the paragraphs on sexual and reproductive health and rights—making their objections to women’s rights clear for all to see.

The Outcome

The nature of negotiations and quest for consensus means that the Asia-Pacific Declaration was not everything that feminists had advocated for. For instance, the strong statement from the Civil Society Forum, which convened 300 feminists from 250 organizations, called unapologetically for systems change and the redistribution of wealth, power, and resources particularly to the people and communities so often marginalized and left behind: the LGBTQI+ community; indigenous people; migrants and refugees; people with disabilities; and racial and ethnic minorities, among others. It called for an urgent response to the climate crisis, with its disproportionate impacts on women and girls; the end to gender-based discrimination, violence, and harassment; and the fulfillment of commitments to guarantee women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive rights, labor rights, and rights to social protection.

The civil society statement highlighted the power of the feminist movement to drive change and reflected our anger that 25 years after Beijing progress is uneven and we are still working to achieve basic rights for all. Many of these calls to action were absent from the formal Asia-Pacific Declaration.

However, the declaration did successfully build on past regional and global agreements and take some incremental steps forward. In particular, it called on governments to:

  • Recognize the importance of the human rights of women in all their diversity (para 4) and address the multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination many women and girls experience (paras 11, 12);
  • Recognize the contributions of feminist groups, women human rights defenders, girl and youth-led organizations, and trade unions in placing women’s needs on national and global agendas, and ensure their meaningful engagement in decision-making spaces, including through a formal regional engagement mechanism. (paras 24(e-f);
  • Establish gender-responsive and inclusive social protection systems—including social protection floors and income security—, public services and infrastructure, prioritizing investments that would lead to a more equitable distribution of care work (para 16);
  • Ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health services and information, protect reproductive rights, and the rights of women to have control over their sexuality (paras 20(a), 20(b), 20(e);
  • Achieve universal health coverage for women and girls of all ages (paras 18 and 19);
  • Ensure gender-responsive responses to environmental conservation and climate change, recognizing in particular the crisis facing Pacific Island nations, and build the resilience and adaptive capacities of women and girls (para 26); and
  • Strengthen gender-responsive and disaggregated data collection, analysis, and dissemination (para 27).

The agreement’s real strength was its approach to addressing discrimination, violence, and harassment against women in the world of work and ensuring sustainable livelihoods. In this area, governments agreed to:

  • Ensure that all women have equal opportunities to decent work and favorable working conditions, including living wages and equal pay for work of equal value (paras 14(b-c, i));
  • Ratify global conventions aimed at eliminating violence and harassment against women in the world of work, a regional first, and a veiled reference to the recent and groundbreaking and recently agreed ILO Convention 190 (para 14(d));
  • Take concrete steps to extend social protection to women in the informal sector, facilitate transitions into the formal sector, and halt the increasing informalization of formal sector jobs (14(j-k, m));
  • Protect the rights of migrant workers, including to social protection (14(g));
  • Accelerate efforts to reduce and redistribute unpaid care and domestic work, recognizing that failing to act contributes to placement of informal domestic workers and migrant workers in precarious environments (14(l));
  • Recognize the need for the first time to address the unintended consequences on women of certain financial services, like microcredit schemes, while increasing their financial inclusion (14(e)); and
  • Address the need for private sector accountability, including to human rights standards (14(f)).

For years, at forums like the Commission and the Status of Women and other processes with negotiated policy documents, progressive governments have made extreme compromises on important issues like the climate crisis, women human rights defenders, and of course, sexual and reproductive rights in the name of consensus.

Now that the tradition of respecting consensus is being dismantled by the US—and others—Member States that are champions of gender equality need to stand firm on the values, commitments, and actions that will actually advance the realization of women’s human rights. They need to recognize that they cannot advance gender equality in isolation: their responses to the climate crisis, the implementation of ILO conventions, and their approach to migration and conflict, can either accelerate or hamper progress for women and girls. And all of this must be done in conjunction with the feminist movement.

There is no doubt that the progress achieved at the Asia-Pacific Beijing+25 review was due to the unrelenting advocacy of feminist leaders from region, including the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), Development Alternatives with Women for A New Era (DAWN), the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW),  International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women (GAATW), and the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement, to name just a few.  It was an honor for IWHC to share the space with them and to demonstrate together once more the power of feminist movements to drive accountability and action for women’s rights.

Stay tuned for the next installment of the Beijing+25 series. Follow IWHC to stay up-to-date and join #GenerationEquality.

Photo: UN Women/Pornvit Visitoran

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