By Cynthia Rothschild*
Sexual and reproductive rights advocates keep hoping for the tides to shift, for the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women to be a site of progressive, bold feminist discourse and policy making. The wait continues, as the CSW remains more a site of battle simply to protect gains made in the 1990s. The 2010 CSW was no exception, even in its honoring of Beijing+ 15, and at its end, governments allowed moderate victories mostly related to preservation of older government-negotiated language. Nonetheless, there were losses, as well, both in terms of constructive language governments could not agree to maintain, and also, of course, in missed opportunities for bolder references that actually speak to the current landscape of sexuality and rights. Here are a few highlights, for better or worse, of the CSW, which concluded on March 12th:
In a threat to language governments agreed to at the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), the resolution on “Eliminating Preventable Maternal Mortality and Morbidity through the Empowerment of Women” provided a platform for battles over references to family planning and unsafe abortion, human rights of women, and health services, among other topics. Sexual rights activists and ally states prevailed in a number of items, including in adding “empowerment” to the title of the resolution, but only after protracted struggle.
The HIV resolution, “Women, the girl child and HIV and AIDS”, while useful for its agreed language related to women, violence, stigma, disability, and sexuality education, among other items, presented a particularly disappointing outcome in states’ inability to retain a reference to the International HIV and Human Rights Guidelines. The Guidelines, which were developed initially in 1996 and revised in 1998, and issued through the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNAIDS, are generally held as one of the more forward thinking UN documents related to HIV & AIDS. The publication has become a flashpoint for conservative states and NGOs because recommendations promote a human rights framework and reference sex workers and “men who sleep with men” as groups of people who are worthy of rights in the context of the AIDS pandemic. The Guidelines encourage states to engage in reform of criminal laws and to promote anti discrimination efforts to prevent and reduce HIV related violations.
Both resolutions were adopted, along with a number of others, including a short resolution that will advance the process of creating the new “women’s entity” in the reform of the gender equality architecture of the UN system.
Sexual rights advocates’ networking and organizing were rich, though, as activists came together to strategize and work together on various projects. The lesbian caucus provided safe space for activists from Lebanon, South Africa, Fiji, Turkey, Serbia, and many other states to work together toward future projects, both inside and outside the UN system. Reproductive rights and youth activists also partnered to ensure governments heard collective SRRH voices.
The CSW did have its moments of “edginess”, as programming during the two weeks of the event took on sexuality in constructive and even surprising ways. The Dutch government hosted a groundbreaking official session on “Human Dignity of Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender women”. UNDP and a number of HIV and VAW-focused NGOs hosted a session entitled “Outlawing Women – Effects of Laws Criminalizing Women’s Sexuality”. An NGO side event entitled “US Evangelicals and Impact on Sexual Rights Movements” exposed the role of conservative US evangelicals and their detrimental impact on sexual rights advocacy worldwide, including in relation to the anti-gay bill in Uganda. Other sexual rights sessions addressed homophobia in schools, female condoms, rights of sex workers and sexuality and development.
These popular events offered a welcome alternative to the usual anti-abortion, anti-gay programming of conservative and right wing NGOs, some of whom co-sponsored a “pro motherhood” event with the governments of Iran, Nigeria, Saint Lucia, Syria, and Qatar.
Over 8000 people registered for Beijing +15 / the 2010 Commission on the Status of Women, and while only about a third to a half of those people actually attended, it remains true that this is a critical space for presenting and exploring new ideas related to sexuality. The CSW allows SRRH activists and policymakers to reach audiences that rarely gather together, to build global alliances and to challenge oppositional views. Given the conservative anti-SRRH presence at each CSW, it also remains important as a site not to cede to fundamentalist voices. With the close of Beijing +15, SRRH activists can now turn their attention to the Human Rights Council and the Commission on Population and Development, and begin more detailed preparation for the Millennium Development Goals Review Summit, to take place in September of 2010.
* Cynthia Rothschild is a sexual rights and human rights activist based in New York