As the 193 member countries of the United Nations struggle to agree on development priorities to be adopted next year, the rights of women and sexual minorities have again become a contentious issue.
The Sustainable Development Goals for 2015 to 2030 will become the UN’s development policy guidelines after the Millennium Development Goals reach their end date in 2015. But as the SDGs are drafted, there is a danger that women’s reproductive rights—control of their own bodies—may be diminished in emphasis globally depending on how they are placed in the goals, according to Stan Bernstein, who worked on reproductive health with the UN Population Fund, USAID and many other organizations for three decades and is monitoring the negotiating process as an independent analyst.
It should be obvious that keeping many millions of women and girls uneducated, unemployed (or unemployable) and, yes, barefoot and pregnant, does nothing to add dignity to their lives or enhance their contributions to building vibrant, more peaceful societies. Or that people who choose gender identities that do not conform to traditional roles can be under threat of persecution and thus also marginalized. But at the UN, parsing a broad agreement down to specifics is never easy.
There are several fault lines lurking under negotiations now in progress. A group of activists from around the world, but primarily in North America and Europe, advocating for unambiguous, concrete progressive pledges on rights of gender identity and sexuality, have already seen attention to gay, lesbian and transgender people eliminated in negotiations. On the other side, religious and social conservatives in both the global North and South are voicing numerous fears. Sex education for adolescents, along with readily available contraception for all ages, safe abortion and the right to freely declared and protected gender identities are among the proposals conservative with influence on their governments see as unacceptable threats to traditional values.
An economic, often ideological, divide is also apparent. Some on the political left thought that until richer countries—the United State in particular—accept the primacy of economic rights that are so important to many development advocates in the South, there will be opposition and pushback to strong endorsement of women’s sexual rights at the UN, given the perception that women’s rights and empowerment will be regarded as impositions from the North. Indian feminist Gita Sen made this argument at Women and Girls Rising, a mid-September conference called to review developments over recent decades and look toward the future. At the conference, a number of participants drew on their experiences in decades of work as independent advocates at UN global conferences on the status of women, and other human rights and development issues.
Ellen Chesler, a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and the author of Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America, organized the extraordinary two-day meeting in New York, which brought together leading feminists, scholars, development specialists and officials from around the world. The UN as an institution has embraced the importance of women’s health and rights, even if all governments represented in the General Assembly have not, but wider public discussion is scant. “What this conference accomplished was bringing together people across generations, across disciplines, across geographies. That in itself was its purpose,” Chesler said in an interview. “There’s some academic work, but there’s nothing that sort of crosses over to a public intellectual audience—that really understands the history of what the UN has done in this space and how deeply rooted it is in the UN human rights development infrastructure,” said Chesler, a historian and public policy expert. “This is not something that started with Bella Abzug. It was Eleanor Roosevelt.”
Chesler, who is beginning work on a book growing out of papers and remarks from the conference, makes the point that while debates at the UN over sexual and reproductive health and rights may be stalled or in contention on some issues, events and trends in countries around the world are getting out ahead on numerous fronts. As a start, she said, women have moved out of “NGO space” and are becoming sophisticated actors in governments, increasingly as ministers are members of national parliaments.
Amina Mohammed is a good example. A Nigerian development policy expert and presidential adviser, she was named in 2012 to serve as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special adviser on development planning, effectively in charge of framing the next generation of global development policies. The UN’s Millennium Development Goals will not all be met by 2015, particularly those involving women.
Mohammed may not be seen universally as the most outspoken advocate for women’s rights, but she has a strong reputation as a negotiator and mediator in political minefields and she is determined to build strong compromises. Speaking to the Women and Girls Rising conference, she said that she is depressed to see that many of the promises made to women over the thirty years that she has worked in development in Africa have not been met. She then laid out a bold set of ideas for the road ahead.
Just looking at global poverty in terms of North-South dynamic, she said, “is insufficient to deal with development. We have to…bring together the social, the environmental and the economic agendas.” Overseas development aid is just the first building block of national policies, she said. “And please, let’s no longer talk about [pilot projects] as our ambition,” she added. “We need so much more than that.” Finding and unlocking new resources at the national level is paramount in her view. “You can’t wait for resources when you are in labor because you’re dying in a few hours, because you don’t have the resources to give you that safe delivery.”
Stronger political will “and a lot more work on accountability” is necessary in tackling corruption and earnings from illegal activities, among other sources, she said. “We know where the loot is, we just don’t know how to get it back.”
Chesler is optimistic that the Sustainable Development Goals can correct the “biggest step backwards in the MDGs”—that is, the elimination of a commitment to reproductive health and rights because of pushback to the agreements forged at the groundbreaking 1994 UN Conference on Population and Development. At that conference 179 countries endorsed access to safe abortion and contraception, among many other recommendations. Chesler does not agree that Western feminists deliberately played down contraception and family planning in Cairo to keep the emphasis on broader women’s rights, which antagonized the Vatican, Muslim nations and a number of African governments in countries where patriarchal tradition is strong. In such countries, she said, rights are often understood in a very different way than they are accepted by Americans.” They don’t understand them as identity based,” she said.
“The Cairo agenda was never anti–family planning; it was a question about means, not ends,” Chesler said. “Family planning was always critical; the question was by what means it was provided.” She said that the idea was not to have family planning imposed from the top down, often in harsh ways—forced abortions or no choices beyond sterilizations, for example as measures of population control. The idea was integrate family planning into primary public healthcare. Societies and governments would need to address the fact that “once a woman stopped having children, she needed a job; she needed healthcare for those two children so they didn’t die. She needed counseling, because the window to a different kind of sexuality opens up when you’re not a brood mare,” she said.
Chesler said that initiatives to bolster family planning and meet the needs of women in the developing nations—who would like to enjoy the same personal choices women in richer nations have had for decades—are coming from a range of actors, some of whom work in partnership with the UN, and some of whom don’t. Among the donors is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, whose FP2020 project aims to bring voluntary family planning and readily available contraceptives to 120 million more women in the next five years. New developments in contraceptive research and technology will help these efforts. Intrauterine devices, popular in Asia, have been improved and Depo-Provera, an injectable preferred by many African women, is being provided in new forms and doses. Plan B, the emergency contraceptive, is much more widely available, including through UN agencies for refugee populations and women raped in conflict areas.
Private foundations are also funding sexuality education. A $50 million donation from Bloomberg Philanthropies will be split between the Marie Stopes International family planning organization and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which is reaching 65 million people globally through the Internet and mobile phones. “In the United States this has obviated controversy over sex education because kids are getting information on their cellphones,” Chesler said.
Stan Bernstein, now an independent adviser and a founder of the private firm Re:Generation Consulting, says he is cautious about the outcome of the new Sustainable Development Goals. “I have a very complex view of what’s going on, some of which is quite positive, some of which is quite negative,” he said in an interview. While he commends agreement on issues such as improved maternal health and an end to violence against women, child marriage and female genital mutilation, which (at the moment) are mentioned in draft goals, he sees some fundamental concerns.
“In the current status of the open working group there is no internationally recognized conception of reproductive health and reproductive rights,” he said, adding that that still disputed ground allows religious conservatives and traditionalists everywhere to look for a hidden agenda among advocates.
Reproductive health and rights are split and appear in two post-2015 goals, he said. “What has happened then is that service delivery efforts are under the health goal, and things that are related to rights are under the women’s empowerment goal,” he said. “It could be a goal by itself, but I think the politics of that are too difficult.” He added that the large number of goals and targets are already something that “people can’t readily wrap theirs minds around.”
Currently, the working group negotiating the new policies has listed seventeen goals and more than 150 targets associated with them. (There were just eight Millennium Goals.) “There’s a strong push from developed countries and several developing countries to reduce that number,” he said. “There was also strong concern about reproductive health being under two different goals, so there is concern that it will be eliminated from one or the other. I consider it a positive development that reproductive health is included under both goals, and that is where I think the major struggle is at the moment—to make sure that it does exist in both.”
The question is how rights-based the overall framework of the new goals can be, given different perceptions of rights in different cultures, religions and countries That will be debated in intergovernmental meetings next year before the Sustainable Development Goals are presented to the General Assembly for adoption in the fall. “Women’s rights issues are not quantifiable,” Bernstein said—“unlike bed nets” for fighting malaria. “So what if we have 160 countries that have laws that are against certain categories of gender-based violence? That’s well and good. But having the law is not the same thing as what is happening in people’s lives.”
This issue underlines the often repeated plea for better data collection at the national and global level to strengthen the case for women’s rights. Reliable data, even basic census information, is absent from many developing nations. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has taken on the challenge in a new program on “big data” that he has established. Called Global Pulse, the initiative is intended “to gain a better understanding of changes in human well-being, and to get real-time feedback on how well policy responses are working,” according to its website.
The problem is that there is no way that kind of data will be ready when it is most needed in coming months.