At the UN, Twenty Years of Backlash to ‘Women’s Rights Are Human Rights’

At the UN, Twenty Years of Backlash to ‘Women’s Rights Are Human Rights’

At the UN, Twenty Years of Backlash to ‘Women’s Rights Are Human Rights’

Socially conservative American Catholics and evangelicals 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.


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.

The world has changed since Cairo. The opposition to contraception has become, statistically, “a lost battle,” says Joseph Chamie, a former director of the UN Population Division. Fertility rates are down globally, though some of the poorest countries are still experiencing population surges. But there the issue is often the lack of access to contraception by hundreds of millions of women who seek it. Safe abortion remains a target of the right in many countries where women who have no other recourse die in unsafe, illegal procedures.

Endemic, epidemic violence against women, another issue getting greater attention recently at the UN, will be the theme of this year’s annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women. Ending violence against women and girls in its many forms globally would appear to be an uncontroversial goal, but there is still no formally agreed definition of the many forms of violence, physical and psychological, and very little data worldwide to quantify the epidemic.

Recognizing and enforcing the rights of women and girls are intrinsic to protecting them throughout life—from female feticide and infanticide to child marriage, unwanted teen pregnancies, rape and unsafe abortions to domestic violence, both physical and psychological, and abuse in old age, all of which persist across the globe. Yet a lack of political will—and the strength of traditional practices harmful to women and girls—prevents the UN from addressing these issues effectively.

Austin Ruse, the president of the conservative Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, is one of those leading the charge against the “rapacious radicals” who use the UN as a forum to advance women’s rights. “It is at these meetings where global plans are hatched to spread abortion around the world, to redefine the family, to mandate homosexual marriage,” he wrote in a February fundraising letter. “Please know that friendly UN delegates, and there are many of them, are outnumbered and outspent by powerful states like the United States, the European Union, and powerful NGOs like International Planned Parenthood Federation.”

In a 2000 report, “Right-Wing Anti-Feminist Groups,” Anick Druelle noted that between the Cairo conference and the turn of this century, Ruse was active in helping to mobilize scores of organizations opposed to a range of sexual and gender rights; he is widely known among conservative Catholics in Europe and elsewhere. “Most of the people who responded to the anti-feminist call from the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute were from the Judaeo-Christian world, more specifically Catholics, Evangelicals, Baptists or Mormons from Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Australia, certain Latin-American countries and Kenya,” Druelle wrote—pointing out that the most of the movement’s leaders, like Ruse, were men.

In February of this year, Conscience, the magazine of Catholics for Choice, published reports on the state of abortion laws from local activists in Europe—with an emphasis on Poland, Spain and Russia—and Latin America, among other regions. In Eastern and Central Europe, many activists have chalked up the resistance to more liberalized abortion laws and increased support for conservative Catholic policies that has emerged since 1990 as a post-communist reaction to the extensive use of abortion as a family planning tool by communist governments.

Piotr Kalbarczyk, a sociologist and former head of the Polish Family Planning Association and its international programs, wrote that Poland’s 1993 legal limits to abortion were “a kind of gift for Pope John Paul II in thanks for his spiritual support during the struggle against Communism.” Kalbarczyk wrote: “Out of a total of over 120,000 NGOs operating in Poland, only two openly fight for abortion rights…. But are they strong enough to overturn the overwhelming power of the Catholic hierarchy? The answer is no: the two sides of the abortion debate are not evenly matched.” In Russia, the Orthodox Church was behind the introduction in 2011 of restrictions on abortion for Russian women, according to Marina Davidashvili of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development.

The status of women in Islamic societies is now in even sharper focus as the new democracies of the Arab Spring seem to be threatening what gains women had made, especially in North Africa, where ultraconservative militants have seized political openings.

Mahnaz Afkhami, a former government minister in Iran who advocated and expanded women’s rights before the 1979 Islamic revolution, created the Women’s Learning Partnership, based in Bethesda, Maryland, in the aftermath of the 1995 UN women’s conference as a response to assist NGO leaders and grassroots activists in the Middle East and North Africa. The partnership works in twenty nations, with a special emphasis on women in Muslim-majority societies. Afkhami said in an interview that post–Arab Spring, Muslim women face the obvious problem of Islamic militancy that would cut back their rights and freedom. But she identifies two more fundamental challenges to Muslim women and other women around the world: the strength of patriarchal traditions and the struggle women face in establishing their Islamic identities in an international atmosphere of Islamophobia related to US antiterrorism measures and American wars in the region. Some increase in veiling, she said “is simply showing reaction to identity under attack.”

“The trajectory on women’s rights has been really backwards in the last ten years or so,” she said. “One aspect of it is the fundamentalist and conservative movements in various countries, whether they be Muslim-majority countries or Christian or Jewish, for that matter. In Israel, for instance, you see the Orthodox Jews insisting on the segregation of buses that pass through various neighborhoods and women having to cover their heads or dress in ways that resemble Muslims.”

In Muslim countries that have experienced recent transitions or been affected by them, popular democracies have been thrust into societies short on liberal values “in the broadest sense – in the sense of inclusiveness, the sense of tolerance, acceptances of difference of opinion, of lifestyles” Afkhami said. “What has happened is that the backlash, which has both a populist face and a government face backed by religious groups and institutions, has really affected the women’s movement and the status of women.”

Growing threats to the status of women in the Middle East are recognized by many women’s organizations in the region. The Washington-based International Civil Society Action Network, a nongovernmental organization focused on women’s activism in countries in conflict or undergoing transition, has been accumulating reports from numerous countries. Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, a co-founder of the network, said in an interview in November that Tunisian women, among others, say that Islamic militants from outside their countries are increasingly active region-wide. “Who are these guys?” they ask.

The influence of the United States, despite the successful efforts of the Obama administration and particularly Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to promote and support the rights of women and LGBT people internationally through the United Nations system, has been limited, if not actually negative, Afkhami said.

“The period of war in the United States had extraordinary effects on the Middle East and North Africa to the detriment of our women,” she said. “One was that laws in the United States such as the Patriot Act were cloned all over the Middle East and used by governments.” Civic organizations and charities, many with religious links in a region where philanthropy is rooted in religious obligations, not only lost foreign funding but also have been cut off by their governments from supporters outside. “Fledgling women’s organizations, fledgling democracy and human rights organizations, which are under pressure from governments on one hand and the more conservative forces in society on the other, have had really only international support on which to base their activism and to survive,” she said. Meanwhile, foreign aid distributed by the US and UN is limited by onerous vetting regulations to prevent any development funds going to groups with possible terrorist links.

Confronted with such a complex global picture, supporters of women’s rights at the UN and in other international institutions have a challenging few years ahead. Afkhami is among those who believe that it would be dangerous to celebrate the gains of the 1990s in new conferences when forces willing to roll back women’s rights are waiting for their chance to attack.

As Frances Kessling writes, the Catholic Church has a long way to go on gender equality.

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