INTERNATIONAL: The Word on Women - The Women's Rights Canon is Under Attack. It's Time to Act.

Monday, November 5, 2012
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General Women, Peace and Security
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This weekend I was invited to speak about women's issues at the Model UN taking place here in Washington. I have to say, though there has been unprecedented attention to women's issues over the past few years, I struggled to present an optimistic picture given a number of unsettling developments.

In a lot of ways, it has been a wonderful time to work on these issues. I spent four years at a group called Women for Women International, which helps women survivors of war rebuild their lives and communities in countries like Sudan, Rwanda, DRC and Afghanistan. In that time we saw the passage of two Security Council resolutions on women and war, and successfully advocated for the US Government to put together a National Action Plan on women, peace and security, integrating United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 into national law. I watched from the balcony of the Security Council with tears of joy as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States, the world's largest military power, would put forward a national action plan to implement 1325, something we had been told would never happen. I was also in New York for the launch of the agency UN Women, which elevated and combined the four preexisting women's agencies into a larger, consolidated agency with a bigger budget and more senior leadership of an under-secretary-general, Michelle Bachelet.

Outside the UN, the increasing focus on women has been reflected in the media, the private sector and across U.S. Government agencies. The Obama Administration launched the White House Council on Women and Girls and appointed the first-ever Ambassador-level post for global women's issues. We have seen celebrity engagement such as Tina Brown's launch of Women in the World and Nick Kristof's use the platforms of the New York Times and more recently PBS to build the half the sky movement and raise wider awareness on women's rights, calling it the human rights struggle of our time. Thought leaders at the Council on Foreign Relations, Clinton Global Initiative and TED have all showcased global women's issues. It has been actually difficult to track all the new and exciting opportunities dedicated to advancing women's rights and opportunities.

There is indeed much to celebrate. But there is also a worrying—and increasingly powerful—undercurrent of resistance, and even violent backlash, that is hindering our progress and diverting the energy we need to move forward. Despite all the media attention, the increased diplomatic focus and the growing awareness of the number of challenges women of the world face, we are simultaneously witnessing a rollback on the fundamental women's rights standards that were enshrined decades ago. It's counterintuitive, but true: even as the spotlight grows, the standards that have enabled it are under attack.

Consider the following:

The UN has been the source and the standard-bearer for frameworks of human rights, equality, dignity and justice for decades—since its very endowment. From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW in 1979. From the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the most comprehensive statement affirming women's rights and challenges in 1995, to the International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action at Cairo the year prior. From Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000 to the host of ensuing resolutions on women and war that followed, these have been decades of precedent-setting frameworks that expand opportunities for women and codify their equal rights and dignity.

Then this summer at Rio+20, negotiations on sustainable development goals traded away women's rights under pressure from the Vatican and other states to rollback basic sexual and reproductive human rights, which states said had “nothing to do with” to sustainable development. Rather than seeing an expanded space for women's rights at the center of a new framework for sustainable development, as we had hoped, women's advocates and allied member states had to spend the whole time engaged in a battle to protect basic rights enshrined by Cairo and Beijing. Ultimately the agreement failed to recognize that reproductive rights are also critical to the achievement of sustainable development. This is not rocket science: we know voluntary family planning can stem the population boom that is fueling poverty and climate change. According to Guttmacher, 215 million women want to avoid getting pregnant but have no access to contraception. Perhaps more than any other development forum, the conference on sustainable development should have taken up the case for sexual and reproductive health and rights. But instead that was the issue that most contributed to its disappointing conclusion.

Similarly, the attention of the UN and UN-watchers is turning to what the new framework for the Millennium Development Goals will be when the charter expires in 2015. At the International Center for Research on Women, we're trying to ensure that the new framework doesn't lose the focus on gender, and indeed expands it to include key areas that were left off of MDG 3 such as child marriage, sexual and reproductive health and rights and women's economic advancement. In various briefings with members of the Secretary General's High Level Panel and a number of meetings of civil society coalitions organizing recommendations for a new framework, I've heard the following disheartening things from fellow development advocates:

“Let's not mention human rights… that's too divisive.” This is particularly discouraging, given that the United Nations is the very origin of the human rights framework. It's there—beautifully, simply, perfectly—in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” That was 1948. That's a 65 year-old precedent, to which untold numbers of ensuing resolutions and frameworks have linked, that is now on the negotiating table as an optional and potentially too divisive add-on.

Here's another one: “Let's not mention women's rights—we'll just get lost in the battle over abortion.” Firstly, we know that protecting women's rights and equality is the key to achieving the development goals. According to the World Bank, “Greater economic and educational opportunities for women mean her daughters are more likely to go to school, her babies are more likely to survive infancy and her family is more likely to eat nutritious meals.” That's progress on MDGs 1, 2, and 4, all through investment in the mother. Secondly, we have already pledged to provide universal access to family planning and sexual and reproductive health services and reproductive rights, nearly twenty years ago at Cairo. This should not be a question, but to this day, every day, 800 women die from preventable causes relating to pregnancy and childbirth. Lack of access to family planning fuels demand for abortions. Guaranteeing women's access to family planning would be the best way to avoid abortions, not an invitation to increase them.

In my work as an advocate for women's human rights with Amnesty International USA, I am most troubled by the reports I see each week of attacks on women's human rights defenders. When I was interning in New York City in 2007 I met Monica Roa, an attorney from Colombia who had just won a landmark constitutional court victory securing limited abortion rights in her country. This summer I found out she and her colleagues are receiving death threats. In my work on women rape survivors in DRC, I got to know the work of Dr. Denis Mukwege, a lone physician who is working every day to restore the health and dignity of rape survivors in his country. This week there was an attempt on his life, killing his security guard. And of course there was the Taleban's chilling attack on Malala, a 14-year-old girl in Pakistan nearly martyred for her belief that all girls deserve an equal shot at education.

The news has been equally disturbing in the context of our national elections. This cycle we've been introduced to the language of legitimate rape, God-intended rape, emergency rape, easy rape. Politicians are campaigning on de-funding UNFPA in particular, or the UN system entirely. Some are promising to eliminate aid altogether. Though the US has yet to ratify CEDAW and never managed to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, we do have standards like Roe V Wade, the Supreme Court decision protecting a woman's right to choose. The decision was once thought to be safe ad infinitum and now is under direct and coordinated attack. Rather than being able to imagine a new horizon for equality and a wider range of rights and opportunities, advocates have to spend all their energy playing defense to protect the bare minimum of our existing standards.

I worry that despite the inspiring and growing attention we've seen paid to these issues both at home and abroad, the very standards that protect the limited victories we have been able to make are more threatened than ever before. From Beijing to Cairo and from CEDAW to Roe V Wade, these are the ideals that millions of women link to in their everyday efforts to assert their equal rights and dignity. These standards may be notoriously difficult to implement, but without them there is nothing to hook to and pull ourselves forward. We must not let them be forgotten or whittled away.