"Backsliding" on women's rights

Population growth and women’s right to choose when to have children could become hot issues again. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway, has warned against “backsliding” in the draft outcome document being negotiated at the Rio+20 conference, which opens on 20 June. The new text might not recognize the advances made in ensuring that women have reproductive rights alongside other major multilateral agreements on development and the environment.

Brundtland led the World Commission on Environment and Development, which produced the now-familiar concept of “sustainable development”. She was addressing a discussion on population and reproductive health on 18 June when Gita Sen, a professor at the Centre for Public Policy in Bangalore, India, and Doris Mpoumou of the International Planned Parenthood Federation - both involved in the text negotiations - said conservative countries were opposed to the inclusion of these rights.

“Countries have asked, ‘What do reproductive rights have to do with sustainable development?” said an astonished Sen. The women urged Brundtland and Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, to intervene and use their influence.

The Cairo Programme of Action, which came about in 1994, was the first international instrument to define reproductive rights. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a year later, set out reproductive rights as a tool for the economic, social, and political empowerment of women. These documents are not legally binding but are “soft laws” that have laid the groundwork for policies related to women’s reproductive rights adopted by many countries.

''Each word represents hard-fought battles - I have been fighting for the recognition of women’s reproductive rights for 20 years''

“It [Beijing Declaration] stresses the importance of the reproductive rights of adolescents and girls, including counselling and access to information, privacy, confidentiality, respect, and informed consent, and stresses the vulnerability of women suffering in respect of sexual violence,” wrote Julia Gebhard of the International Max Planck Research School on Retaliation, Mediation and Punishment.

Words matter

The strong discussion of the text at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, underpins the importance of words in multilateral documents, even when they are not legally binding, like the political outcome document on the table at Rio+20.

“Each word represents hard-fought battles - I have been fighting for the recognition of women’s reproductive rights for 20 years,” said Sen. “Recognition is critical, as it sets the direction of policies in countries.” Mpoumou said for civil society groups like the one she represents, international forums like these are the only opportunity to influence policies, albeit indirectly, in their countries.

Countries safeguard their positions and philosophies with careful wording and are often quite protective of points gained. “I asked one country official, ‘Why are you being so defensive? This is not a legal treaty,’ and he replied, ’It is a matter of principle and we do not want to be seen as giving in,’” said an activist.

Robinson said it was "shocking" that in the 21st century women's rights were still a contested issue.