Beijing + 10: It will take all our energy to stand still Print E-mail
The Guardian -- London -- Tuesday March 8 2005
It will take all our energy to stand still

Bush's America is waging a global battle against women's rights

Mary-Ann Stephenson

For all George Bush's courting of Europe, when it comes to women's
reproductive rights he is closer to Iran and Syria than the EU. In 1995,
representatives from 189 countries met in Beijing and agreed a major
programme on women's equality and human rights - the Beijing platform for
action. This statement was ambitious, and the UN commission on the status of
women is currently meeting in New York to review its progress over the past

The meeting was to publish a statement reaffirming international support for
the platform for action. But the US has refused to support it unless it is
amended to say that the platform does not create any new human rights or the
right to abortion.

But it doesn't actually give the right to abortion. States are called on to
"consider reviewing laws containing punitive measures against women who have
undergone illegal abortions", but the platform is clear that "any measures
or changes related to abortion within the health system can only be
determined at the national or local level according to the national
legislative process".

But that's not how the US is presenting it. Countries are being warned that
failure to support the US amendment could allow the platform to be used to
push through a "right to abortion" and take away the right of countries to
determine their own laws. Activists are furious. Annette Lawson, of the
European Women's Lobby, said the US is "simply trying to mislead the rest of
the world".

This is not the first attack on the platform. At the Beijing Plus Five
conference in 2000, Pierre Sane, the former head of Amnesty International,
complained about "the unholy alliance formed by the Holy See, Iran, Algeria,
Nicaragua, Syria, Libya, Morocco and Pakistan (that) has attempted to hold
for ransom women's human rights at UN conferences". The climate of backlash
has intensified since then, particularly following the election of Bush.

The US argues that its actions are simply aimed at preventing a "human right
to abortion" being forced upon the world. But its real concern is preventing
women from exercising the rights they already have.

Under Bush, the US has led attempts to reverse gains made on sexual and
reproductive rights. One of his first presidential acts was to reinstate the
global gag rule, which means any organisation in the world that receives any
US funding is banned from providing abortion services, including counselling
or referrals for abortion.

The rule has forced family planning organisations to close clinics, cut
services and increase fees. Shipments of US condoms and contraceptives have
ceased to 16 developing countries. Family planning organisations in another
16 countries have lost access to condoms because they have refused to accept
the restrictions.

It's not just abortion rights that the US is opposed to. At an Asian and
Pacific conference last year on population and development, the US
delegation tried to eliminate all references to condom use as a way of
preventing the spread of HIV/Aids, insisting on a policy of "simple
abstinence". The US was isolated, and its position was defeated by 32 votes
to one.

At the start of last week, the US had looked similarly isolated, but its
tactics of picking off one country at a time through a familiar combination
of promises and threats appear to be working. The EU is standing firm,
issuing a statement reaffirming its support for the platform and placing
emphasis on the need to pay greater attention to sexual and reproductive
health and rights. But some activists are worried that countries such as
Poland and Malta are coming under intense pressure.

Fears of a US-led backlash have already affected UN activities on women's
human rights. Activists were afraid that if the platform was open to
revision, the rights set out in it might be rolled back. This is why the
event taking place in New York is not a conference that could build on the
Beijing agreements, but is simply a meeting to review progress.

Before the meeting began, it was already depressing that the best women
could hope for from the international community was that it "reaffirm" a
10-year-old agreement. Now it looks like even that was wildly optimistic.
But there are some things that give hope. More than 6,000 women (and some
men) are attending the meetings. It may not be an official world conference,
but organisations and individuals from around the world are meeting, sharing
ideas and strategies. Ceri Hayes, of Womankind Worldwide, says that those
attending are sending "a clear message to the world that the women's
movement is alive and kicking". With the current US administration, a lively
international women's movement with a good strong kick couldn't be needed
· Mary-Ann Stephenson is a trainer and consultant on women's leadership