Abortion and Gay Rights Consume Beijing + Five

UPDATE: Support of abortion rights remained weak in the final document agreed to by U.N. delegates. Women activists made important gains in the area of domestic violence and sex trafficking, but gay rights initiatives failed.


NEW YORK, June 9-Throughout the week, an unspoken threat hung over the hundreds of delegates to the United Nations Special Session on women's rights and representatives of 1,300 non-governmental agencies.

They crammed into hearing rooms going over, page by page, word by word, the so-called Outcome Document, detailing what nation's should do to ensure the progress of women. All knew some nations would push hard, for hours, until the sun rose, to rollback certain rights spelled out in the Beijing Platform for Action adopted five years ago.

The goal of the special session was to review progress on women's rights worldwide in the past five years and set new goals on a full range of issues including workplace rights, education, business opportunities, health care, gender parity in government, media, the environment and peace.

As expected, most contentious was the language covering the rights of women to receive reproductive health care, including abortion services or sanction-free post-abortion medical care in countries where abortion is illegal. Botched illegal abortions cause the deaths of nearly 80,000 women each year.

The language came across reserved, prefaced by: “In no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning.” Delegates did acknowledge unsafe abortion as a major public health concern, and agreed that in every country, whether abortion is legal or not, measures should be taken to handle health complications. Delegates called for safe environments for people who get legal abortions and a review of punitive laws aimed at people whose abortions are illegal.

New areas identified for action included violence against women, sex trafficking and access to land.

The area of violence against women saw many improvements over the 1995 Platform for Action, calling for legislation to punish all forms of domestic violence, including marital rape. Delegates also called for laws and programs aimed at abolishing the harmful customary practices of female genital mutilation and “honor” crimes-family members killing women who they claim have shamed them.

Trafficking also gained a voice in the Outcome Document. Delegates required that governments address the factors that encourage trafficking in women and girls for prostitution, start prevention campaigns and strengthen legislation to punish perpetrators. They also asked governments to consider exempting victims of exploitation from persecution for illegal entry.

In a subtle, but powerful improvement over the Beijing Platform, delegates agreed to promote and implement women's rights to equal access and control over property and inheritance. The 1995 Platform called for “equitable” rights, which wouldn't necessarily mean that women would receive half.

Scott Long, policy director of the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission, expressed profound disappointment with the session. He said that almost no references to sexual orientation and sexual rights were included in the final document and instead it restated language found in the Beijing platform: that women had the right to their sexuality, free from coercion, discrimination and violence.

“This was supposed to Beijing plus five,” Long said. “It was supposed to be about what nation's had done to implement the platform. Instead,” he added, the women there were forced to right a “rear guard action” to resist efforts to alter the platform's positions.

That the document was an improvement over the Beijing Platform in some areas can probably be explained by the strategy articulated by Charlotte Bunch, director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership, during the session.

“They need to know that we are here and we are on the agenda for the 21st Century.”

The delegates apparently noticed. A remark made by one delegate from the European Union was reported with some jubilation by one observer, Bisisoula G. Oganleyerg from Nigeria, to a caucus of other advocates.

“Look in the gallery! Women from all over the world are watching!”

One dispute, less clear cut than others, but vital to many, was whether the document should refer to the Beijing Platform in a footnote or in the text. Nations that had signed the platform noting their reservations desired it to be in a less prominent position-the bottom of the page. The text faction won.

However, the anti-gay rights prevailed. Conservatives rejected any use of the term “sexual orientation,” even in a factual statement that some countries had passed nondiscrimination laws.

Angela King, U.N. assistant secretary-general and special adviser on gender issues, said Friday morning that she saw “no evidence” that the Outcome Document would include weaker language than the Beijing platform.

Nevertheless, Thursday's negotiating session lasted until 5 a.m. Friday. Talks reconvened at 1 p.m. Friday, with the deadline for completion pushed back to 1 a.m. Saturday, with full knowledge that translation and distribution would take several additional hours. Most delegates have airline tickets requiring Saturday departures.

Throughout the week, as the stubbornness of the handful of nations opposed to abortion and gay rights came clearer, representatives from the non-governmental agencies-from labor groups to anti-domestic violence advocates-grew more united in their efforts to prevent actual backsliding.

This unity in anger was apparent in the daily “linkage caucus,” held at the end of each day's negotiations and attended by up to 500 women's rights advocates.

On Tuesday, the tone was one of confusion, the agenda disorganized. One by one, regional representatives stood and spoke of their dismay.

Kaori Shirafuji, of the Yokohama Women's Forum, left the session tired and demoralized. “A few countries are just making sure there's no progress-on reproductive rights, sexual orientation. I am a little afraid.”

On Wednesday, the confusion had turned to anger. Caucus leaders announced that they were drafting a statement to be presented to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and all delegates. This time participants were focused, direct in their comments on the statement.

Frustrated with obstructionism and with one day to go in a weeks-long process, several hundred women from around the world gathered in a plaza across from the United Nations wearing T-shirts that said “No Going Back” and chanting “Enough is Enough.”

They learned later in the day that much more was to come. Some began referring to the session as “Beijing minus 5.”

By Thursday's session, Annan had issued an unusual press release asking member governments to uphold the Beijing platform.

Ambivalent feelings surrounded the finalizing of the Outcomes Document.

In a statement, leaders of Non-Governmental Organizations expressed disappointment that the U.N. special session did not produce more benchmarks and numerical goals to make it easier for governments to monitor their progress.

Although the Outcome Document is not binding on governments, many thought concrete dates and numbers would facilitate implementation of the document.

“If you say you want to decrease poverty,” said Joan Ross Frankson, communications director for Women's Environment and Development Organization, “When will you do it?”

Overall, the Outcome Document was an improvement over the Beijing Platform. “It was not meant to repeat Beijing, but if there was a controversy, we took the Beijing language,” said Angela King, U.N. assistant secretary-general and special advisor on gender issues. “We did not go backwards in any sense, and in many areas we went further.”

WEnews correspondents Cynthia Cooper, Chris Lombardi and Laura Marble contributed to this story.