|Beijing Plus Five: Sexual and Reproductive Rights are Here to Stay|
Beijing Plus Five: Sexual and Reproductive Rights are Here to Stay
Summary: An overview of gains made and challenges faced in advancing sexual and reproductive rights during the Beijing Plus Five progress review.
In the 1990s, sexual and reproductive rights were the subject of vigorous debates at the UN's world conferences, such as the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW) in Beijing. It is therefore not surprising that, five years after the FWCW, sexual and reproductive rights were once again at the center of the UN's "Beijing Plus Five" progress review, held in New York between March and June 2000. Beijing Plus Five gathered 180 government delegations and over 2,000 women's groups to discuss progress and obstacles in the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, and to decide on concrete steps to accelerate implementation.
While the Beijing Plus Five review showcased some of the actions taken since 1995 to guarantee women their human rights—including sexual and reproductive rights - it also made clear that much remains to be done to translate words into action. Poverty and illiteracy continue to affect women disproportionately. Globally, 600,000 women still die every year, and some 18 million are left disabled or chronically ill, due to preventable complications of pregnancy and childbirth. WHO estimates that 330 million new sexually transmitted infections occur annually, at least half of these among young people. HIV/AIDS alone accounts for 6 million new infections every year, with young girls and women at greatest risk in many parts of the world. Sexual violence is widespread and lethal, both within and outside marriage.
Negotiating health, motherhood and the family
Many government delegations, as well as women's groups, fought hard against these positions. They argued that the nuclear family is not the norm in many parts of the world, and that many families are neither safe, particularly for young girls, nor models of gender equality. They also pointed out that, without full control of their sexuality and reproductive life, women cannot realize the full range of their human rights.
Women's groups take charge
Finally, Latin American governments (except Nicaragua, Honduras and Argentina), joined by most countries of the Caribbean, formed a negotiating bloc known as SLACC ("Some Latin American Countries and the Caribbean"), which articulated positions supportive of gender equality as well as economic justice. SLACC worked closely with South Africa, the bloc of Southern African countries known as SADC, certain other African countries such as Cameroun, Ghana and Kenya, as well as India—highlighting the extent to which progressive positions on women's rights have gained ground at the national government level since 1995. This development stood in sharp contrast to Beijing, where a number of Latin American delegations had put forward conservative views, particularly on sexual and reproductive rights.
Debates on a set of new agreements to redress these persistent inequalities were, to say the least, arduous and chaotic. But women emerged from the UN's smoky basement victorious once again. The final agreements reached by governments are quite positive, and reflect many of the concerns that women's groups from all over the world had put forward at the beginning of the review—particularly on health and violence against women.
In fact, a substantial number of the concepts contained in the NGO suggested amendments made it into the final Document, often almost word-for-word—a significant testimony to the large number of NGO representatives on government delegations, tireless work by progressive delegates, and constant support to government delegates by NGOs throughout the negotiations.
Advances for women
Regarding health, the most important result was governments' re-affirmation of the forward-looking agreements reached at the 1999 ICPD Plus Five review, which included indicators and time-bound targets on sexual and reproductive health. In this respect, health was one of the very few topics where concrete, measurable targets were adopted or re-affirmed at Beijing Plus Five.
In addition, governments withstood right-wing attacks and re-affirmed that adolescents, particularly girls, should have access to sexual and reproductive health services, as well as sexuality and lifeskills education. They once again agreed that these services and programs must be designed and run with the full involvement of adolescents, respecting their human rights and maintaining confidentiality. After much heated debate in small negotiating rooms, conservative states also grudgingly agreed that education programs should be provided to enable men to practice safer sex. They decided that priority should be given to the development of microbicides and HIV vaccines, and to providing female condoms. Finally, they acknowledged that reduction of maternal mortality and morbidity must be made a health sector priority at the national level.
On the ideologically charged subject of abortion, governments could only agree to reiterate their Beijing agreement to "consider reviewing laws containing punitive measures against women who have undergone illegal abortions" They also re-affirmed the ICPD Plus Five agreements to "train and equip health providers to ensure that [legal] abortion is safe and accessible."
Conservatives mounted a concerted and effective effort to keep the phrases "sexual rights" and "sexual orientation" out of the Document. But the content of these concepts is included, as a result of strong pressure from the EU, Turkey, South Africa, the negotiating bloc known as JUSCANZ (Japan, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), and Cuba. As in Beijing, the agreements on non-discrimination include terminology, such as "and other status" and "full diversity of women's conditions and situations," to cover sexual orientation. Support by the EU, SLACC, JUSCANZ, Turkey and Southern African countries ensured that the Beijing agreement on the human rights of women "to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, free of coercion, discrimination and violence" was repeated verbatim.
Canada registered a strong statement at the end of the negotiation regarding their interpretation of "and other status" as inclusive of sexual orientation, noting that the Human Rights Committee of the UN had reached the same interpretation. The European Union, joined by Romania, Turkey, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Lithuania, made an equally strong statement condemning all forms of discrimination, including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
In the last week of the negotiation, Nicaragua, supported by the Holy See, sought to introduce a "conscience clause" in the abortion paragraph. The proposed amendment would have allowed physicians to refuse to perform abortions, refuse training to perform them, or deny women information about abortion. It did not include any provision for mandatory referrals to other physicians, or regarding the obligation to perform services in cases where the woman's life is in danger and no other health provider is available. The health and rights NGOs mobilized to oppose the amendment. As a result, there is no such conscience clause in the Document. Attempts to insert a paragraph of this kind had also been defeated in Cairo, Beijing, and at ICPD Plus Five.
As in every negotiation, there were of course disappointments. To ensure government accountability, NGOs had worked for a document focusing on concrete benchmarks and time-bound targets—but very few new ones were agreed. A number of the final paragraphs are so general as to provide little additional guidance in accelerating implementation of the Beijing agreements. And the bigoted comments made by a few conservative government delegations and some right-wing NGOs during the negotiations on sexual orientation were a deeply disturbing reminder that intolerance still runs deep.
Women will not be turned back
The challenges posed by implementation continue to loom large. In many cases, substantial resources will have to be allocated by governments and the international community to turn the Beijing Plus Five—and Beijing—agreements into reality. However, in other cases, such as repeal of discriminatory laws, much can be done without great expenditures. The Beijing Plus Five review made clear that feminist organizations from all over the world will continue to press governments and the UN for change, and for the resources to make change happen. As the final communiqué of the Coalition in Support of the Beijing Platform stated at the end of the review, "women will not be turned back."