Last April, for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, governments from all regions came together at the United Nations in New York to negotiate the final document of the Commission on Population and Development (CPD). Jointly with WO=MEN member organisations Rutgers and CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality and Share-net Netherlands, we organised a debriefing to share updates and insights and discuss developments in relation to the backlash being simultaneously experienced in the USA. Below we share some key points of attention from the discussions.
By Husna Jalal & Nadia van der Linde
The road to consensus at the CPD
Joining us for this meeting were Evi van den Dungen, from Rutgers and NGO representative in the delegation to the CPD and Rineke van Dam, Senior Policy Officer at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Netherlands co-facilitated this 55th CPD meeting, together with El Salvador, which Rineke shares meant much extra work and responsibility but also unique insights and opportunities to engage in the process.
The negotiations were tough, with clear divisions between (groups of) countries. Much opposition to gender equality and sexual and reproductive health (SRHR) and rights terminology was experienced from countries like Russia, Egypt, Bahrain, Indonesia, Pakistan and of course the Holy See (Vatican). They implemented a ‘profit maximising strategy’, whereby they start off by flooding the text with very conservative language, to later offer to ‘compromise’ by taking some (but not all) of it out. Other countries, like South Africa and Morocco, showed more openness to move forward. Many countries in Latin and North America and Australia are considered ‘like-minded’ countries to us on all or most of the topics.
And the really good news is that a final document was adopted by consensus! This has not always been the case, so it is already a milestone in and of itself. The final document even has seven references to human rights, something not previously achieved, and mentions gender responsive approaches. Comprehensive sexuality education, a topic strongly supported by Rutgers and CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality, did not make it in - "there was no dialogue even on this, just a brick wall” - and will remain on the agenda for next year when the main topic of the CPD is about education.
Overall, some clear progress was made in terms of language use in the resolution. But there are also lessons to learn about how to collaborate more strategically in the negotiations. In 2024, the 30th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) will be celebrated. Let’s make sure there is plenty to celebrate!
The Backlash in the USA
While the US joined the opposition during the Trump administration, they were back in the progressive block during this CPD, supporting gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights. But the reality is not all that black and white. To discuss (inter)national dynamics and pushback on gender equality and sexual and reproductive rights in more detail, Serra Sippel, Chief Global Advocacy Officer atFòsFeminista was invited to share insights into the recent developments in the US.
Serra spoke about the lobby in the USA for a permanent repeal of the "Global Gag Rule” and repeal of the "Helms Amendment”, which is ongoing. The conversation also addressed the impact of the impending overturning of the Roe versus Wade
Supreme Court decision. This indeed happened just weeks after this meeting and soon after about half of the States made abortion illegal. "Yes, we saw it coming,” admits Serra, "but there was also disbelief.”
- Global Gag Rule: Also known as the Mexico City Policy, the Global Gag Rule was first put in place in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan and has historically been revoked by any Democratic president and put back in place by any Republic president. Under president Trump, the policy was further expanded. It prevents foreign NGOs that receive global health funds from the USA from doing any work on abortion, even with funds that are not from the USA. This restriction applies to abortion services, but also to any form of information provision, counselling, referrals or advocacy on abortion.
- Helms Amendment: The Helms Amendment, or Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act in full, was passed by US Congress in 1973. It states that US foreign assistance funds may not be used to provide abortion services nor to "motivate... any person to practice abortions”. This amendment was passed just after the Roe versus Wade decision by the Supreme Court which protects abortion rights in the USA [and which was repealed in June2022].
At the same time there are moves in the US banning sexual education materials, claiming that it ‘makes students uncomfortable’. "But when it comes to education materials, they are clearly not concerned about black students at al. It's about how it makes the white students uncomfortable,” explains Serra, alluding to racist materials that continue to be welcomed in schools. "They are taking the basic right to information from students, and it's violating their fundamental constitutional right.” She went on to state that she expected this restriction in the US to have an influence on SRHR [sexual and reproductive health and rights] globally.
How did we get here?
Serra shares that there are numerous developments that contributed to this backlash, but one that should not be overlooked is the impact of funder cuts. Many of the key private foundations that supported women’s rights and SRHRorganising for years, decreased or completely stopped funding this area of work. Thus, there have been fewer people and organisations in the frontlines fighting the battle to get rid of the Global Gag Rule and Helms Amendment. At the same time, there were also a lot of internal issues taking place in organisations in the movement around workplace culture, that needed attention and impacted capacity.
The loss of Roe vs Wade
will not be the end game for the opposition. They will gear up to take away many more women’s and LGBTQI+ rights, as the marriage equality law, for example, builds on Roe vs Wade
. Serra highlights that this pushback in the US is likely to have global implications.
And now what?
More effort needs to be made to collaborate with and learn from others. And be creative. To fill the gap of access to sexuality education materials, some libraries started providing free online access to such materials for students from across States. As we have seen, the US has been showing a progressive face in support of SRHR in international (UN) spaces. This could impact positively on domestic policy as well. And according to polls in the US, the majority of the people want abortion to be safe and legal so there is a strong basis to work with.
As for women’s rights and SRHR organisations in the US, they are urgently seeking to learn from experiences from their neighbors in the south and elsewhere. As Serra shares: "How do we ensure safe abortion access when it’s illegal? And what can we learn from the pro-abortion green wave
in Latin America on social mobilisation?” It is now urgent to actively seek to collaborate more across movements and to highlight the intersectionalities of different political agenda’s such as with anti-racism and LGBTQI+ movements.
It is important to stress that not all is lost. In fact, many other countries are showing progress. Abortion rights were recently strengthened in Benin, Argentina, Mexico and the Netherlands (removing the mandatory five-day reflection period). While same-sex marriage was not an option 25 years ago, it is currently legal in over 30 countries. "Remember that the backlash is a response to the progress,”