There were few unanimous voices emerging from the Rio+20 summit on “Sustainable Development”. Sadly, one of those unanimous voices was that of the Reproductive Rights community, united in its disappointment and outright anger that once again reproductive rights had been sidelined and alluded to in only the most cursory fashion in the outcome document.
The International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), the world’s largest sexual and reproductive health and rights NGO, has long maintained (in common with other groups) that the capacity for women to make free and open choices about whether, when, and how often to have children is absolutely central to any consideration of sustainability.
The issue of reproductive rights is one which Rio+20’s outcome document barely acknowledges. It offers some faint rays of hope: it re-affirms various existing agreements in the International Conference on Population and Development’s (ICPD) programme of action (PoA); its language with regard to reproductive health and women’s empowerment is generally positive; and with regard to the full and effective implementation of the ICPD PoAs, it includes “the promotion and protection of all human rights in this context”.
The outcome document also states a generalised intent to address the needs of women by providing information on, and access to, sexual and reproductive health services, including safe, effective, affordable and effective methods of family planning.
But that’s about it.
There’s no reference to reproductive rights. No recognition of women’s rights being at the centre of development. No recognition of the link between reproductive rights and sustainable development. No mainstreaming of reproductive health in relevant places such as education, cities, food and water. And gender is one of the very last sections to get a mention.
In short, reproductive rights have been firmly shunted off the sustainability agenda. This is due in no small part to the strenuous efforts of a tiny minority of implacable opponents, notably the Holy See, Malta and Egypt.
What did Rio+20 actually achieve? Despite glowing endorsements from world leaders, the consensus among many of the groups campaigning for serious change is “not a lot”. Rio+20 emerged with a process: a process designed to determine some goals, at some non-specific point in the future and with no discernible mechanism for their incorporation into other international undertakings, including the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
What the world achieved at Rio was the construction of a process to duck the issue, not to address it. And Member States have done this without acknowledging that the active participation of their own citizens, and especially that of women, will drive sustainable development. This cannot be right.
No useful debate on sustainable development can afford to ignore reproductive rights. A woman’s right to protect herself from unwanted pregnancy – should she so wish – has immense health, social, educational and economic impacts, personally and globally. And yet, today, over 215 million women worldwide do not have that right. They do not have access to contraception. They are denied rights and choice.
The Declaration is a contradiction: it acknowledges existing ICPD and Beijing agreements, but offers no response. Its language is unanimous at the start, but descends into fruitless ambiguity. Collectively, Rio has concluded nothing which will help the world’s poorest and most vulnerable peoples. Rio has turned its back on the needs of half the world’s population. How can that be just? How can that be sustainable?
What will be sustained – and intensified – is the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights community’s absolute determination to ensuring that world leaders and policy makers understand – finally – the true personal and political implications of the denial of reproductive rights.
On the outskirts of Rio there is a favela called Cachoeirinha, a slum which is home to 37,000 inhabitants. IPPF’s Member Association BEMFAM runs a project there, which works with young people to provide sex education. One 16-year-old had some advice for Rio delegates:
“Tell them to send their own daughters to live in our favela for one month, without any access to reproductive health as they suggest, then when they get pregnant the leaders will see for themselves what it is really like, and maybe they will change their minds”.
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