Rio+20 Agreement Fails Women, and the World

During meetings to finalize the Rio+20 document, Heads of State will adopt in the next few days at Rio+20, delegates agreed on a plan short on vision and big on compromises, including trading away women's rights to placate the Vatican, Egypt, and Syria.

Women wave scarves at Rio+20 protest. Photo by: Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD).

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Brazil, a country that in the past has championed women’s human rights, including reproductive rights, at the global level, has failed women in both Brazil and the world over.

During meetings to finalize the Rio+20 document, Heads of State will adopt in the next few days at Rio+20, delegates agreed on a plan short on vision and big on compromises. After three days of long, drawn-out negotiations, marked with lack of clarity about the process, a document to be signed off by heads of government was presented. Quickly gaveled through by the Brazilian chair, one after another government thanked Brazil for facilitating this document and largely expressed how this was the best they could do. By all accounts, despite the attempts to spin the outcome as a success, this document is neither “the future we want” nor what future generations deserve. In an effort to get consensus at whatever cost, Brazil forgot Rio: the vision and commitments of the Rio Earth Summit held 20 years ago.

From the start of the negotiations, gender equality and women’s human rights, including reproductive rights, have continuously been challenged by a few governments, claiming that [these] had “nothing to do with sustainable development.”

This debate continued until the last few hours of the negotiations. In the end, the text includes a re-affirmation of both the Cairo and Beijing agreements, but it falls short by failing to recognize that reproductive rights are also critical to the achievement of sustainable development. If a woman cannot decide if and when to have children and if she is not provided with the reproductive health care that is her human right, it is challenging to contribute to sustainable solutions for the planet.

Opposition to women’s human rights per se was concentrated among a few countries, with the un-holy alliance of the Holy See and oppressive governments such as Syria and Egypt insisting on marginalizing women. And since there was so much at stake for “more important issues,” such as trade, financing for sustainable development, and the green economy, other governments in the end traded away women’s reproductive rights, giving the Vatican what it wanted in the first place. But even if reproductive rights had been reaffirmed, the lack of real commitment by the international community to eradicate poverty, address urgent environmental concerns, and to chart a clear path for implementation of sustainable development, makes it difficult for women– and for the world — to  achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment in this context.

Norway, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay, Mexico, Iceland, Switzerland, Israel and many others fought to the end to retain the reference to reproductive rights and expressed disappointment that this was not incorporated in the final text. However, it is expected that they will speak of their continued commitment through their leaders during the High Level Segment that begins today.

The Brazilian failure: selling out women’s human rights in this negotiation, has not gone unnoticed. Brazilian feminists quickly mobilized and demanded an explanation from their government. In an interview with local media following the agreement on the text, the Brazilian Foreign Minister expressed disappointment that “reproductive rights” had been kept out of the document, but went on to explain that this was done out of the need to reach a compromise. Immediately following the adoption of the text, women gathered and protested at Rio Centro, the main venue for the conference, chanting “reproductive rights are not for sale”, “governments have failed women and the planet” and “women’s rights are human rights.” Finally, in a meeting with Michelle Bachelet, the head of UNWomen,  and the Brazilian Minister for the Environment, Brazilian Women presented their declaration to Rio+20 which fittingly ended with these words:

“We defend women´s rights to equality, autonomy and freedom in all the territories where we live, particularly in our bodies, which are our first territory.”

For now, governments attending Rio+20 have failed both territories.