United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon delivers a speech at an international meeting for women youth leaders in Seoul, August 13, 2012. (Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji)
Socially conservative American Catholics and like-minded evangelical Protestants who have led a decades-long campaign against the rights of women in the United States are now gearing up for a season of battles on the bigger global stage. This week, the Commission on the Status of Women at the UN begins a two-year series of international meetings that pave the way to the twentieth anniversary of the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, which fundamentally redefined the role of women in family and society. In agreements made at that conference, a woman’s right to control her own body became international policy at the UN. Before that conference, a majority of the world’s women lived in nations where women’s rights were certainly not a given, not the right to make their own reproductive choices nor to expect to be protected in numerous other ways. The Cairo conference, pledging to put women’s rights in the center of development, steamrolled with surprising ease over the Vatican’s delegations that stalked the halls with their grisly photos of aborted fetuses. Among feminists from every corner of the world, euphoria reigned.
A determined backlash soon took shape, however. Within the next decade, the anti-abortionists, anti-LGBT activists, anti-feminists of all kinds and the George W. Bush administration (which cut off all aid to the UN Population Fund), had stepped up opposition in the hope of undoing the agreements of Cairo, which many nations simply signed and ignored in any case. Still, the UN keeps women’s rights defined by the gains of the 1990s on formal agendas. The annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women, which began on March 4, will be followed by sessions of the Commissions on Population and Development in April and on Sustainable Development in May. All are targets of conservatives.
Although conservative religious and social forces around the world, both Christian and Muslim, view meetings that focus on women’s rights as assemblies packed by radicals out to destroy the family and male dominance over the lives of women, the people who are most wary of these coming anniversaries are the strongest supporters of the rights of women and gay people. In their view, reopening the Cairo debates, and those from the UN-sponsored Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995—where Hillary Clinton first proclaimed that “women’s rights are human rights”—risks rolling back gains made almost two decades ago.
Both progressive women’s groups and governments that support women’s rights strenuously opposed a proposal, made last year by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the then-president of the General Assembly, Ambassador Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser of Qatar, to hold another international conference on women. “Beijing + 20,” as the proposal was known, seems to have been shelved, at least for the time being. The anniversary of the ICPD will be low-key and in the context of the UN’s fall General Assembly session.