Live from Rio+20, Day One: Women and Reproductive Health

This week begins the major UN Rio+20 “Earth Summit,” and I’ll be covering women and reproductive health (RH) issues as relate to the official UN proceedings, the NGO perspectives, and global south women’s personal stories on how Rio+20 touches their lives.

See all our coverage of Rio+20 here.

June 18, 2012, From Rio: This week begins the major UN Rio+20 “Earth Summit,” and I’ve just arrived at the sprawling “Rio Centro” complex where the official UN negotiations and many non-governmental organizations’ (NGOs) side-events are taking place.  While here for the duration of the meeting, I’ll be covering women and reproductive health (RH) issues as relate to the official UN proceedings, the NGO perspectives, and global south women’s personal stories on how Rio+20 touches their lives.

The scene here at Rio Centro is against a backdrop of lush tropical vegetation and the distinctive towering Rio de Janeiro mountain ranges. Once inside, the scale of activity is daunting: thousands of country delegates, non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives, students and youth advocates, and grassroots leaders from around the globe – are all vying for their piece of protecting the planet’s natural resources.  There are many voices here, and I am concentrating on  how “women and RH” will play out, how it will feature in the final Rio+20 outcome document, and beyond the Rio+20 meeting.

Dr Musimbi Kanyoro, Executive Director, Global Fund for Women

Dr Musimbi Kanyoro, Executive Director, Global Fund for Women

Today I attended a keystone side-event which set the scene perfectly, on “Sustainability Revisited: Population, Reproductive Health (RH), and the Planet”, co-organized by the Aspen Institute’s Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), and the UN Foundation (UNF).  High level speakers included Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and a crafter of the original Rio outcome Agenda 21, Musimbi Kanyoro, CEO of the Global Fund for Women, Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, Timothy E. Wirth, President, UNF, Tewodros Melesse, Director General, IPPF, and Peggy Clark, VP, Aspen Institute as Moderator.

The remarkable leadership panel had a consensus on several key points, including:  

  • Sustainable development requires the empowerment of women as a pre-condition for any real change, the key components of which are the right to education, economic opportunities, and universal access to family planning 
  • Neither reckless resource consumption nor rapid population growth are sustainable
  • Empowerment of women and family planning are human rights issues that are mainstream, not to be sidelined or seen as controversial as they are now 
  • Filling the 215 million strong “unmet need” for family planning and reproductive healthcare is an essential, cost-effective tool for achieving women’s empowerment and sustainable development

The side-event speakers also reported on the status of the official UN Rio+20 deliberations. 

Panelists Gro Harlem Brundltand, Peggy Clark, Mary Robinson and Timothy E. Wirth

Panelists Gro Harlem Brundltand, Peggy Clark, Mary Robinson and Timothy E. Wirth

The feeling was mixed, that reference to women and RH is now in the negotiated text (it wasn’t in the original draft), but there’s a big risk of it being put on the back-burner, with feeble mention and no commitments. Negotiators have not been able at this point to get clear text on women and RH issues in the Rio+20 outcome document.  In these finals days of negotiations, the speakers felt we must hold firm and prevent a backsliding from the strong language on these issues already achieved at the UN International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and Beijing Women’s conferences.

A key point was that it was critical that reference to women and RH be in the framing language – or “vision section” –  in the introduction of the Rio+20 outcome document.  As Mary Robinson put it, these are mainstream development issues and must be treated that way in the Rio+20 document.

There is pressure by the Vatican (is that really a country? It has a full vote at the UN!) and Algeria to strike all reference to women’s empowerment and RH, or at least move it to the back of the document to obscurity.  Stay tuned on that one!  The fight is on and I can tell you this leadership panel’s message was clear. As Senator Wirth stated, “It’s fine if they stay in the 19 century, but we are going to move ahead”.

Closing statements at the side-event centered on facing opposition to these issues with strong, clear messages in support of women’s empowerment, universal access to RH, meeting the unmet of family planning globally – and the finances to support it all. And Dr Kanyoro’s voice summation was poignant:  “I speak as a person from a developing country and as a woman, and to argue that population growth isn’t important just isn’t right.  Population growth weakens our development systems, and is not going to help women or developing nations.  We need to address population growth from the perspective of empowerment of women.”  

So, although the official Rio+20 process focuses primarily on assessing, managing and financing for protection of the world’s natural resources, there are increasingly strong forces highlighting the human dimension.

As the Rio+20 outcome document will frame how nations worldwide will achieve sustainable development in the foreseeable future, it is obvious there is a strong drive to include women, reproductive health and rights as central. The Women’s Major Group is taking the lead in monitoring and providing input to the official negotiations of specific Rio+20 outcome document text on gender. And many other women’s and RH advocates here in Rio are organized, speaking out, and powerful as they present passionate, informed and strategic input into this Rio+20 process.  From what I see here, these issues are gaining traction as the negotiations move forward.  Watch this space as the week goes on for how it all turns out.  

Tomorrow:  I visit a Rio favela or shanty-town to see a family planning clinic and speak with youth there.  Later in the week I will interview women’s activists and grassroots leaders including a peasant farmer from Uganda, community activist from the Pacific Cook Islands, and youth leaders from Nigeria and the Philippines on “women and RH”, and their hopes for Rio+20.