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.