Beijing+20 review reveals limited progress on women's reproductive rights

As world leaders and women’s organizations gathered in at the United Nations to observe the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women, there was concern about the lack of progress in advancing women’s rights, and the limited inclusion of reproductive health and rights in the post-2015 development agenda.

The lack of progress is reflected in a report issued by the United Nations Secretary General, released by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. “The disappointing gap between the norms and implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action points to a collective failure of leadership on progress for women,” she said at a press conference on Friday. “The leaders entrusted with the power to realize the promises made in Beijing have failed women and girls.”   Advocates were outspoken in their criticism.

In a statement before the 59th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women submitted by nearly a dozen women’s rights and reproductive health organizations, they pointed to the lack of action had been taken to ensure women’s rights to bodily autonomy. In the Beijing Platform for Action, governments committed to “consider reviewing laws containing punitive measures against women who have undergone illegal abortions.” In the two decades since, numerous human rights treaty bodies have urged governments to ensure women’s ability to access safe abortion and postabortion care, noting the harmful effects of criminalization of abortion and the resulting violations of women’s rights to equality, non-discrimination, health, privacy, information, education, and freedom from inhuman treatment and torture.

“We have seen evidence of incremental progress in this area, but much work remains,” said Ipas Advisor Brenda Muturi in a statement to be read before the Commission during the session. “Two decades since Beijing, women in much of the world are still facing discriminatory laws and living without autonomy to make decisions about their reproductive lives and their future.”

The Addis Ababa Declaration on Accelerating the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action that came out of the recent Ninth African Conference on Women issued a particularly strong call for greater access to comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion. It called on member countries to “…[e]xpand the provision of family planning services and contraceptives and access to safe and legal abortion services in accordance with national laws and policies, and protect the reproductive rights of women by authorizing medical abortion in the case of sexual assault, rape, incest, in line with the Maputo Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.”

Advocates were frustrated with the political declaration negotiated by the Commission before the opening of the 59th session. They noted that the declaration observing the 20th anniversary of the Beijing conference, officially adopted at the meeting’s opening ceremony, did not carry the same ambitious, progressive approach embodied in the Beijing Declaration.

“At a time when urgent action is needed to fully realize gender equality, the human rights and empowerment of women and girls, we need renewed commitment, a heightened level of ambition, real resources, and accountability,” declared a statement endorsed by nearly 1000 women’s organizations from around the world.

Advocates also expressed frustration that the negotiations for the CSW Declaration took place in closed-door sessions in the months leading up to the official session, a process that excluded the participation of civil society organizations. Historically, the Commission has adopted declarations or “agreed conclusions” after a two-week session that includes robust civil society participation.

By contrast, participation by civil society and women’s groups was critical to more progressive declarations from the regional meetings leading up to the CSW session. Statements and declarations from these meetings articulate the need to dedicate more resources and political will to fulfilling the commitments made in Beijing in 1995.

The Commission meets from March 9-20, during which time countries and civil society organizations will offer statements about progress and obstacles towards meeting the objectives laid out in the Beijing Declaration.