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Wednesday, June 07, 2000

Sex issues split world's women at UN conference
Beijing +5: Reproductive rights at centre of declaration deadlock
Luiza Chwialkowska
National Post

UNITED NATIONS - Western and developing countries are deadlocked over whether women's sexual and reproductive rights should be recognized in an international declaration to emerge from a UN conference on women's equality.

The document that is to result from the Beijing +5 conference, convened to review global progress on recommendations agreed to at a women's conference in China in 1995, includes issues ranging from education for girls, participation of women in politics and the media, and women's roles in negotiating an end to war. But matters of sex are holding up the process.

"The language is all bracketed and the brackets won't start coming off until Thursday night," predicted Austin Ruse, a leading American anti-abortion organizer at the conference.

"There is no momentum either way," he said.

Western countries, led by Canada and the United States, are pushing for a statement calling for training for abortion providers in countries where the procedure is legal, and for adolescents to be able to obtain information relating to sex without seeking parental consent.

Citing a growing AIDS epidemic in Africa, they want a declaration supporting contraception and sex education.

Conservative delegations and NGOs see the language as a code for sanctioning abortion and undermining the traditional family.

"The controversial language is definitely sexual and reproductive rights," said Julie Neff, a lobbyist with the Washington based anti-abortion group Concerned Women for America. "Our goal is to make sure they keep out the nasty language on abortion rights, sexual and reproductive rights."

Ms. Neff says it should be up to individual countries, not the UN, to decide the issues for themselves, with respect to their cultures and traditions.

But the rallying cry of most women's groups at the conference is that women's rights are human rights and cannot be denied by any national government.

Katherine McDonald, executive director of Action Canada for Population and Development, defines reproductive rights as the right of women to decide "whether you're going to have children, when you're going to have children, and how many children you're going to have."

Feminists say they accomplished two victories at the 1995 Beijing conference. For the first time, the right of adolescents to information and services about sexuality and reproduction was affirmed.

The 1995 declaration also described abortion as an issue of "public health," and urged countries to consider reviewing laws that punish women who have had illegal abortions.

Now, while some delegations want to step back from that language, others are urging that governments agree to train and equip health workers to provide abortions where abortion is legal.

"The advances here are incremental, they are tiny baby steps," said Ms. McDonald.

The contentious language has been referred from the main floor to closed door meetings of a special "contact group" on health, raising the ire of anti-abortion groups who accuse the delegates of "going underground" with their agendas.

The G77, a negotiating group of developing countries chaired by Nigeria, is said to have fallen apart, with member countries increasingly negotiating for themselves.

There is dissent among developing countries that want to protect the traditional values, and those eager to adopt the Western-style feminist agenda.

Maheen Sultan, a representative of Naripokkho, a women's rights group in Bangladesh, said she is disappointed with the lack of progress on the document.

"It is very surprising that countries are objecting to things they previously agreed to," she said.

"Our country is quite progressive on women's right to choice, on access to services and information. We are disappointed that our delegation was not able to get more support within the G77."

The struggle has created some unlikely allies among "holdout" nations.

"We as a people owe an incredible debt of gratitude to the United Nations delegations of the Vatican and the countries of Algeria, Libya, Iran, Pakistan and the Sudan," said Richard Welch, president of Human Life International of Virginia, which bills itself as the world's biggest anti-abortion group.

(Each link opens a new window)
  • United Nations: Beijing+5
    The main site for the conference otherwise known as "Women 2000." Also check out this PDF document discussing strategies for implementing the five-year-old Beijing platform.
  • Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action
    What was agreed upon in Beijing.
  • Status of Women Canada
    The Beijing+5 page of the ministry headed by Hedy Fry.
  • Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action
    A critique of the Beijing+5 conference.
  • WomenWatch
    The UN agency attempting to advance women's rights across the world.
  • Holy See
    The official web site of the Vatican, a criticized participant in the talks.
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