• The religious right are wrong: all women have the right to choose

    As the Guardian so poignantly reports:

    In failing to accept that women own their own bodies, religious groups risk reversing progress on the status of women

    How is it possible, in 2013, that violence against women is still tolerated? That was a question I heard several times at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) last week.

    But while sitting through events, debates and discussions in New York, my recurring thought was why, in 2013, are we still arguing over whether women should have ownership of their own bodies?

    Numerous international human rights documents, national laws and UN agreements – including the Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, the outcome document of the International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in 1994, and its reaffirmation in the Beijing Declaration in 1995, to name just a couple – have failed to convince some that women have the right to access family planning, or to decide whether or not they want to have children and, if so, how many and when.

    The mention of sexual and reproductive health and rights in the draft CSW agreement this year has become a major source of contention among negotiators – much like it did at the Rio+20 summit last year.

    Governments, including those of Pakistan, Iran and Malta (described to me as “the Trojan horse of the Holy See in the EU”), are not only objecting to phrases in the draft outcome document that reaffirm women’s sexual and reproductive rights, but are going further by seeking to unpick the language of previous agreements such as the one made in Cairo.

    Just as troubling is the influence on proceedings of the Holy See, which has permanent observer status at the UN, and conservative religious groups that have been lobbying hard to get other member state delegations to object to some of the language in the text. The Holy See does not have the right to vote, but it has the ability to meddle. Its tentacles reach far and wide. I was told that one tactic of the Holy See in the past has been to personally call ministers to persuade them to take a particular stance at the CSW talks, even if it flies in the face of a country’s national polices.

    The Holy See’s mission mandate at the UN states that it seeks to end violence against women and children – the focus of this year’s CSW – but surely it, and other delegations, know that violence will never be eliminated until women have power over their own bodies. Contesting these rights, which have been enshrined in international agreements, sends out a strong message that women are still very much second-class citizens, who can’t be trusted to look after themselves.

    In conversations I had, and overheard, at the UN last week, it is clear that the Holy See and some of the lobbying religious right believe endorsing women’s reproductive rights will open the door to more abortions and undermine the role of the family. I saw one man get out his plastic model of a foetus in the UN cafe to ram home his point that abortion is wrong and family life must be protected. But this is misguided.

    Giving women a right to choose does not mean they will seek abortions. Giving women access to family planning will not mean they won’t have children. Likewise, the suggestion that keeping sex for marriage will somehow protect women from sexual assault (another point the man with the model foetus made), and therefore mitigate the need for emergency contraception or abortion services, is naive in the extreme.

    The point here is simply that women must have the right to choose.

    These aren’t the only contentious points in the CSW draft document, of course. Others include objections to developing comprehensive sex education programmes (comprehensive implies discussions about family planning, abortions and gay relationships); reference to being able to access emergency contraception and safe abortions if a woman or girl has experienced violence (the paragraph on this goes on to state that abortion services can only be offered if permitted by the country’s laws, so there is no intent in the document to persuade states to change legislation); and use of the term “gender-based violence”. The Holy See wants references to the sexes to be written in purely biological terms.

    So, what chance of an agreement being reached by Friday? After last year’s failure to get one, UN Women really wants an agreement, not least to protect the reputation of the CSW as a convening body.

    Françoise Girard, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition, is optimistic. “I’m confident we’re going to get a good agreement, given the strength of the women’s movement here and the determination of activists. I see no other possible result than a strong set of agreements,” she told me. Girard, who has been attending CSW meetings since 1999, said activists are an “irresistible force” when it comes to lobbying negotiators.

    However, others are much more pessimistic. One country mission to the UN expressed real concern that the CSW was being hijacked by the religious right. The delegate told me there could be no going back on the language used in previous agreements. His country, along with several others in the global north, would not vote for an outcome document that sought to do that. No agreement was better than one that backtracked, he told me.

    And that’s probably the most depressing thing I heard last week. After years of struggle and in spite of statutes, laws and agreements, perhaps the best we can hope for from the CSW this year is an agreement that doesn’t roll back previous commitments – and maintaining the status quo would only come about after months of behind the scenes lobbying and two weeks of intense negotiations. How did it come to this?

    Category: Gender


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce