by Rebecca Lefton
Rio +20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, is renewing international conversations about how to simultaneously address poverty, protect the environment, and maintain balanced economic growth. If progress is to be made, the agenda must reflect that achieving gender equality is intimately tied to achieving these other goals, as well as being a goal in and of itself. But as current negotiations stand, Rio risks losing an opportunity to embrace and strengthen the link between women’s rights and gender equality and sustainable development
A draft agreement was reached on Tuesday after lengthy and painstaking negotiations. But many are disappointed, including those who support women’s equality. Country negotiators have been working over the last several months to complete an agreement to bring before official high-level negotiations that began on June 20. In the process the text ballooned from an original 19 page document to hundreds of pages. But yesterday’s slimmed down version of 49 pages represents the lowest common denominator. Appallingly, women’s reproductive rights and references to gender equality were a casualty.
The United States, Norway, and women’s NGOs that organized through the Women’s Major Group fought hard to include language ensuring reproductive rights for women and affirming gender equality in the Rio text. However, the Holy See (the Vatican) led an opposition that ultimately prevailed in removing key sections for gender equality in the text. The result is that language ensuring reproductive rights were completely dropped from the text.
As the language from an earlier version of the text dated June 2 shows, the Group of 77 — a negotiating bloc of developing countries known as the G77 — and the Holy See opposed the inclusion of language ensuring women’s reproductive rights. The final text only commits to promote rather than ensure equal access of women to health care, education, basic services and economic opportunities. And the reference to women’s reproductive rights was deleted in the draft agreement.
June 2 text:
We are committed to ensure 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 their reproductive rights, — G77 reserves] and ensuring universal access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable modern methods of family planning. In this regard, we reaffirm our commitment to fully implement the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the key actions for the further implementation of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development. [Holy See reserve]
Draft agreement text:
241. We are 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. In this regard, we reaffirm our commitment to implement the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the key actions for the further implementation of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development.
The Holy See is a non-member-state permanent member of the United Nations that has been influential in equating women’s reproductive rights with abortion in Rio conversations. “The Holy See has made many delegations argue that reproductive rights and health is code word for abortion. It is not never has been,” said Gita Sen, Executive Committee, Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era, during a briefing in response to the text.
Indeed, reproductive rights and justice goes beyond contraception to ensure that women have full reproductive care including maternity and labor care, family planning services, abortion care, and sexual health information and services. Reproductive justice considers education, economic, and other political and societal factors that limit women’s reproductive choices. For example, education provides more options for women to establish alternative livelihoods and attain economic security, which in addition to delaying childbirth, can also improve the quality of life for themselves and their children.
Until women have the freedom to decide when to give birth, have access to the basic services and nutrition necessary to have a healthy pregnancy and give birth to and raise healthy children, it’s imperative that reproductive rights and justice are recognized in such conversations and reflected in the text. But Sacha Gabizon, Executive Director for Women in Europe for a Common Future and representative for the Women’s Major Group, lamented that negotiations on reproductive health and rights questioned the link between women’s rights and sustainable development saying “every time we have to fight to keep the link.”
There are more than 7 billion people on the planet and the United Nations projects it will reach 9.3 billion by mid-century. Much of the population growth will be in developing countries where reproductive rights are sorely lacking, and that are also highly vulnerable to climate change.
An unstable climate threatens future generations. As we saw in 2011 during the worst drought in Somalia in more than 60 years, lives are at stake. Tens of thousands of people died due to the famine in Somalia, mostly children. And one in five children in the country is still hungry. Unabated climate change means it’s only going to get worse. In Somalia the fertility rate in the country is more than 6 births per women and it’s estimated that only 4.6 percent use modern contraception.
According to the United Nations Population Fund, around 215 million women, or one in six women of reproductive age, who want to delay or cease childbirth do not have effective contraception. About 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned and a quarter are unwanted. If all women had access, one in three deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth could be avoided.
It’s clear that reproductive rights are essential to improve health outcomes and for the full participation of women in our economies.
Furthermore, women’s vital role in sustainable development has long been recognized.
The 1992 Rio Declaration acknowledged the need for inclusion of women to meet the sustainable development goals. Principle20 of the declaration states: “Women have a vital role in environmental management and development. Their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development.”
In 1995 the Fourth World Conference on Women Beijing Declaration underscored that economic development and social development that empowers women and environmental protection are “interdependent and mutually reinforcing components of sustainable development.”
Yet, Connie Hedegaard, EU Commissioner for Climate Action, expressed concern and dismay at the lack of strong language in the text during a UN Women Leaders Forum. There is “a lot of ‘taking note, recognize that’…and not a lot of ‘commit to, decide to’ that kind of wording,” said Hedegaard.
Unfortunately the gender text reflects the soft language Hedegaard and others feared. For example, an earlier version of the text from June 2 says “We resolve to ensure full and equal rights and access of women to productive resources through the rights to own property, inheritance, credit and to financial and extension services along the entire value chain.”
The outcome text, however is a muted, stating: “We resolve to undertake legislation and administrative reforms to give women equal rights with men to economic resources, including access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, credit, inheritance, natural resources and appropriate new technology.”
What’s the difference? Rather than “resolve to ensure full and equal rights to productive resources” the agreed to text only resolves “to undertake legislation and administrative reforms to give women equal rights with men to economic resources.” If that sounds like a good idea just look at the recent failure of the US Senate to advance fair pay legislation, again.
Instead of the earlier language that would ensure “rights to own property, inheritance, credit and to financial and extension services,” which came from the Beijing Platform, the outcome text only calls for legislation to include “access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, credit, inheritance, natural resources and appropriate new technology.” This may not seem like a big difference, but rights to own property, inheritance, and credit, is much different than access to these resources. As Sen said, “giving rights to access can be anything.”
Land rights for women are of critical significance for sustainable development. If women had the same access to resources, farm yields could increase by 20 percent to 30 percent, which would feed 100 to 150 million people that would otherwise go hungry. But only between 10 and 20 percent of women in developing countries have land rights and women hold fewer assets and face more difficulty attaining credit. Women’s agency is critical in transitioning to sustainable agricultural practices that can manage the sector’s large greenhouse gas contributions and ensure food security.
Women’s equality is integral to success. Policymakers at Rio have an opportunity to steer the future toward a more inclusive and prosperous economy for all. Progress won’t be made unless women’s rights are fully incorporated throughout, not just an item on the sidelines.
Rebecca Lefton is an international policy analyst with the Center for American Progress.