US accused of trying to dilute global agreements on women's rights 

UN Commision on the Status of

Zehra Zumrut Selcuk, Turkey’s minister of labour, social services and family, speaks at the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York.
Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Draft documents suggest US will refuse to reaffirm commitment to international declaration on women’s rights at New York forum

US officials in New York are attempting to water down language and remove the word “gender” from documents being negotiated at the UN, in what is being seen as a threat to international agreements on women’s rights.

In negotiations at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which resume at UN headquarters this week, the US wants to replace “gender” in the forum’s outcome document with references only to women and girls.

The move follows similar attempts by the US last year to change language in documents before the UN human rights council.

In draft documents, seen by the Guardian, the US is taking a step further at CSW by refusing to reaffirm the country’s commitment to the landmark Beijing declaration and platform for action, agreed at the fourth world conference of women held in 1995. 

The Beijing agreement is regarded as the blueprint for global women’s rights. Although it is not legally binding, the document is used widely by activists to hold their governments to account on policy related to women.

The Beijing platform for action covers 12 key areas that need to be addressed to achieve gender equality. It covers issues ranging from ending violence against women and eliminating female genital mutilation to women’s representation in the media and their involvement in decision-making. It was adopted by 189 countries.

Muadi Mukenge, chief of development and external relations at the reproductive health NGO Ipas, said the US taking a step back from Beijing was “a cause for concern”.

“The US played a leadership role in the passage of Beijing, so to take a step back is regrettable. We know so many areas of Beijing have not been realised yet. There are still gaps and inequalities and it would be irresponsible for the US to take this position,” said Mukenge.

“When the US speaks it has an impact on the global conversation. It could potentially set a precedent. We already have governments that are hostile to the consensus they agreed to previously.”

The Guardian understands the US also wants references to migration and climate change completely removed from the CSW document.

Under the Trump administration, US negotiators have found themselves more aligned with countries including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia than European nations. These countries consistently seek to undermine agreements on women’s rights at the UN, specifically around reproductive health and rights. This year’s US delegation includes Valerie Huber, a proponent of abstinence-only sex education and now a senior policy advisor in the Department of Health and Human Services, and Bethany Kozma, an anti-choice activist and senior advisor for women’s empowerment at the US Agency for International Development.

Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition, said: “They [the US] are coming into the negotiations in a way that is very aggressive and that advances an anti-gender, anti-woman position from the very start.

“One of the first things they have tried to do is block reaffirmation of Beijing and subsequent documents … trying to downplay the political importance of this document as setting out the vision for women’s human rights. They are trying to weaken commitments to that overall.”

Kowalski said the US position was emboldening other countries to take a regressive position.

In a speech to CSW on Friday, Cherith Norman Chalet, US ambassador for UN management and reform, said “we are not about gender jargon. Today, here at the Commission on the Status of Women, we are about women. Women and girls. The life of all women and girls”.

She pointed to the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative, which aims to improve the economic opportunities of 50 million women, and the WomenConnect Challenge to close the digital divide for women, as evidence of the US’s commitment to supporting women.

Chalet added: “The United States is also committed to protecting the precious gift of life, including the protection of baby girls who would have been aborted, merely because they are female.”

The two-week long CSW, which began on 11 March, assesses progress on advancing gender equality and women’s rights, and reviews implementation of the Beijing agreement.

Emma Watson, Keira Knightley among stars urging better protection of womenRead moreEach year, more rightwing, conservative governments, along with the Holy See, which has official observer status, push for specific wording to be removed for the concluding document, which this year focuses on making social protection systems and public services work for women. This pushback is usually centred on references to women’s sexual and reproductive rights, gender and family.

Kowalski is confident member states will agree a document says: “The question is, how strong will it be? It [the US position] puts people on the defensive and limits what’s on the table for discussion.”

More than 9,000 representatives from more than 1,000 civil society organisations registered to attend CSW, and hundreds of side events are being held to advance women’s rights.

Last week, the US state department came under fire for excluding women’s rights from its annual country reports.

Stephanie L Schmid, US foreign policy counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, said the decision “sends a clear message that the United States does not care about the plight of women and girls and is part of a comprehensive effort to erase sexual and reproductive health and rights from global discourse. This erasure is a blatant and unapologetic rejection of the basic principle that reproductive rights are human rights.”

Liz Ford, the Guardian, 19/03/2019