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Rio+20 Failed to Take a Stand on Key Women’s Rights Issue

Official Declaration Omitted Specific Language on Women’s Reproductive Rights

The Rio+20 Earth Summit ended as expected — trumpeting the green economy as the path to sustainable development and leaving many environmental and civil society groups bitterly disappointed. Among the summit’s bigger failures was its refusal to acknowledge that women’s reproductive rights are crucial for creating healthier and sustainable societies.

Photo by The Advocacy ProjectA reproductive health information stall at a festival fair in Nepal. More than 215 million women around
the world want to be able to plan their families but have no access to contraceptives.

The official Rio+20 declaration  (called “The Future We Want”), as well as the “Call to Action” signed by the UN Women’s “Summit of Women World Leaders” that ran concurrently at Rio, omitted specific language on the reproductive rights of half of the world’s population.

Women’s groups and several countries, including the US (oddly enough), Canada, Peru, Bolivia, and Norway, had fought hard to include language ensuring reproductive rights in the Rio text. But strong opposition from a handful of other countries influenced by The Vatican, which ran a successful campaign equating reproductive rights with abortion, ultimately prevailed. Among others, the Vatican’s allies at Rio were nations like Syria and Egypt, where women have been marginalized for ages. Common cause makes strange bedfellows. Host country Brazil, too, sold out to the Catholic Church.

The chief argument by the opposition was that gender equality and women’s reproductive rights have nothing to do with sustainable development. They couldn’t be more wrong. A woman’s right to choose when and whether to have a child and her access to reproductive care, are key components of a healthy and sustainable society.

Women are on the frontlines of coping with the effects of climate change. In most countries around they world they are the main providers of food, water, and other resources for their families. When women are empowered, they can better support their families and adapt to climate impacts.

Many conference participants, including former heads of state, have expressed concern about this backsliding on previous commitments on sexual and reproductive health.

A day prior to the Rio+20 declaration's release, Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, stressed the importance of bringing the message of supporting family planning and reproductive health to a much wider audience and linking it with women’s issues. She said it was very worrying that these issues were not on the agenda.  

Gro Harlem Brundtland, former president of Norway and chairwoman of the Brundtland Commission, said omitting a specific reference to reproductive rights represented "a step backwards from previous agreements" on women's empowerment. Women want better access to sex education and information on family planning to enable them to change their lives and take responsibility for their own future, she said.

Indeed, more than 215 million women around the world want to be able to plan their families but have no access to contraceptives. In a world straining to support a population of 7 billion, and heading toward 9 billion, we simply can’t afford to ignore this. Yet There wasn’t much talk about the population issue at Rio, even though the world’s leading science academies urged negotiators to drop political inhibitions and confront rising global population.

On the last day of the conference, at a side event on population, women, and rights, Christian Friis Bach, minister for development cooperation from Denmark, said that the text had been close to having language on reproductive rights. But because the language was left out, Friss believed "it has created a campaign here in Rio that hasn't been seen," with more people standing up for reproductive rights than ever before.

So maybe there’s hope yet. Hope that although Rio+20 failed women in many ways, it will kick off more conversations about gender equality and help build bigger and stronger alliances on women’s reproductive rights across the world.

Suzanne York
Suzanne York is Director of Transition Earth, a project of Earth Island Institute.

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