The outcome of the Rio+20 summit failed women everywhere. Language regarding reproductive rights and gender equality was dropped from the draft agreement, representing a significant step backwards from earlier agreements.
Going into the summit, the draft document included specific language ensuring reproductive rights and gender equality. A handful of oppressive regimes opposed this language and the Holy See led the opposition in an influential campaign that insisted on equating women’s reproductive rights with abortion. In reality, reproductive rights are about a great deal more than abortion, but unfortunately, the Holy See was able to assert enough pressure to succeed in getting the language removed from the agreement, leaving behind only vague references to reproductive health.
Ironically, most states are already under obligation to ensure reproductive rights and gender equality. As of today, 187 states have ratified Convention on the Elimination on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which requires member states to, among other things, take affirmative action to eliminate gender discrimination and to ensure that women have access to affordable, quality health services, including reproductive health. In fact, lack of access to reproductive health services and information is considered discriminatory against women under CEDAW. Unfortunately, due to weak enforcement mechanisms and a substantial number of reservations taken by states in ratifying the convention, performance of state obligations under CEDAW has been relatively poor. Including strong reproductive rights and gender equality commitments in the Rio+20 agreement would have been an excellent way to reinforce the importance of these issues, especially since it would have been from a sustainable development perspective.
Every day, evidence of the importance of reproductive rights and gender equality can be found in the news. For instance, Save the Children just came out with a report on family planning finding that complications during pregnancy is the number one killer of teenage girls worldwide; babies born to mothers under the age of 18 are 60% more likely to die before their first birthday; and a “major barrier to family planning is that many vulnerable women and girls are unable to exercise their rights to make decisions over their own health care, including family planning.” Additionally, in Uganda, where approximately 16 women die during childbirth every day, women activists are currently taking a case to the Supreme Court in an effort to force the government to provide better maternal health care.
Rio+20 represents a lost opportunity. What could have been a significant step forward for women’s rights turned into yet another instance where women were left out of the picture.