by Anne Marie Goetz
The last time that the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) talks focused on rural women was in 2012, when discussions between member states collapsed amid opposition from some delegations to sexual and reproductive health and rights language.
Since then, CSW agreed conclusions have come at the expense of commitments to sexual rights, and comprehensive sexuality education. Negotiations have become more tortured, and ‘outcome documents’ increasingly banal.
So what can we expect from this year’s event – where a number of countries, including the United States, are sending reactionary delegations?
The CSW is the UN’s largest annual gathering on gender equality and women’s rights. For states, civil society groups and other international organisations, it is a key international forum to agree priority concerns and commit to take actions. But negotiations also reflect shifts in global perspectives on the feasibility and methods for promoting gender equality.
This year, the CSW’s conclusions look set to suffer from the vacuum left by the US as it abandons aspects of its support for women’s rights. This vacuum has emboldened other governments who are hostile to the expansion of women’s rights, and who find themselves in unconventional coalitions with countries with whom they share little apart from anxieties about the rapidly changing social roles of women and families.
The US has never – even under the Obama administration – been able to support full reproductive rights and autonomy for women because of its own polarised domestic politics on abortion. This year, however, it appears to be making procreation the main focus of reproductive health, with an emphasis on ‘maternal health’ that sidelines the need to address women’s massive unmet demand for contraception around the world.
That contraception is coming under attack is confirmed by the inclusion of pro-abstinence advocates on this year’s US delegation, such as Valerie Huber of the Department of Health and Human Services. She heads an office that funds family planning support for 4 million poor Americans, but this month it released annual funding guidelines with not a mention of women’s access to contraceptives.
Some countries have pre-agreed regional positions to strengthen progressive stances at the CSW. Most notably, ministers of women’s affairs from 29 Latin American and Caribbean countries met last month in the Dominican Republic and issued a declaration on rural women’s empowerment that references families ‘in all their diversity,’ a phrase understood to include those with same-sex partners. This may help to neutralise extremists including the Guyana representation of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) group, which has in the past reflected Russia’s positions at the talks.
Luckily, the predominantly conservative Africa regional group (represented by Egypt, Comoros, and Cameroon) and the Arab group (represented by highly conservative Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain) have good starting positions on reproductive health including commitments to contraceptive access. Shared convictions from these regional groupings may help isolate the reactionary positions of delegations from the US, Iran, Nicaragua and the Vatican.
The US is perhaps the only country holding a relatively progressive position on sexual rights at the CSW, while at the same time being hostile to women’s reproductive rights. Observers attribute this to Ambassador Nikki Haley’s defense of LGBTQI rights at the UN security council, with regard to ISIS persecution of sexual minorities.
Nevertheless, the US will face serious internal tensions this year on matters of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). One of its CSW delegates, Bethany Kozma, has been described as a ‘violently anti-transgender activist’. Furthermore, the US no longer supports comprehensive sexuality education. Its current position on this long-contentious issue is aligned with that of Russia, stressing that parents should be the key filters and mediators of any education adolescents receive about sexuality.
Another dynamic to watch at this year’s CSW is the use of ‘national sovereignty’ arguments by some states to block advances on women’s empowerment. The Africa and Arab regional groups both support heavy-handed language to this effect. The US also joined this camp, stating at the end of 2017 that CSW conclusions ‘do not necessarily change or reflect the United States’ obligations’– in keeping with the current administration’s intensifying isolationism.
The US has also signaled that the CSW talks are not the appropriate forum to talk about markets, technology, migration or trade. It would prefer no mention of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Other countries including Hungary, have insisted that migration cannot be considered a positive phenomenon. Suggestions that these are not core matters for rural women threaten to diminish the scope and ambition of economic empowerment proposals.
Not all CSW delegations have been suddenly swamped with conservatives. The Marshall Islands has come out with a powerful position supporting SOGI and reproductive rights. Brazil, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Argentina continue to be powerful rights champions. From Africa and Asia, however, there have been fewer progressive stand-outs. Activists are eager to see whether representatives from the Philippines will stick to previously principled positions.
There is no question that the CSW is more deeply polarised than ever before. The global gender equality struggle desperately needs more champions from the global south, and repeating the 2012 failure to agree conclusions at the UN talks would do nothing to help rural women.
Three quarters of the world’s poor live in rural areas. Despite their disproportionate role in small-scale farming and food security, women own very little of the world’s agricultural land and are vulnerable to displacement due to divorce or widowhood. Even in wealthy countries, rural women are twice as likely to be assaulted by their partners as urban women, and are much more likely to suffer pregnancy-related health complications.
A CSW outcome that galvanises investments in rural women’s property rights, livelihood security, and access to public services would be welcome. But agreeing such an outcome at the expense of previously secure rights would not be a successful conclusion. If feminists want to avoid this result, now is the time to step up lobbying their national delegations as they arrive in New York.
Anne Marie Goetz is Clinical Professor at the NYU SPS Center for Global Affairs.