Women’s rights are under the greatest attack in almost 20 years after a failure of world leaders to continue to support reproductive rights, according to former Irish president Mary Robinson.
Her comments come amid fears that religious conservatives are eroding support for family planning around the world. Objections from the Vatican and other states removed specific support for reproductive rights, such as family planning, from an international agreement reached in Rio de Janeiro last month by the UN conference on sustainable development.
Robinson joined campaigners criticizing the final agreement reached between 190 countries at the Rio+20 summit. The former president accused global leaders of “backsliding on fundamental texts” agreed at two summits subsequently lauded for protecting women and girls: Cairo in 1994 and Beijing in 1995.
Women’s rights campaigners were shocked that a coalition of the Holy See, Russia, Syria, Egypt and several of the more conservative South American states were able to jettison international agreements made in the 1990s by speaking against the inclusion of reproductive rights in the final agreement.
This “failure of leadership” could have a devastating effect on some of the world’s poorest and most powerless women, Robinson said.
“When you don’t carry that [forward], women worldwide hear a message that life is going to be more difficult,” she said during a visit to London of the Elders, a group of former world leaders brought together by former South African president Nelson Mandela.
While Robinson said she understood a compromise had to be reached by the UN, “they went for a lower common denominator, to say the least.”
The former UN high commissioner for human rights condemned the backtracking on agreements painstakingly hammered out in two important summits on family planning and women in the 1990s, when both she and former Who director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland, a fellow Elder, were heads of state.
The Rio+20 summit was attended by figures including British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, British Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Zohra Moosa, women’s officer at ActionAid UK, welcomed Robinson’s intervention, saying the UN agreements reached in Cairo and Beijing had been used to defend women’s rights, not to control the timing and number of children they have in parts of the world where human rights are not enshrined in law.
“Instead of advancing women’s rights we seem to be rolling them back,” she said.
Robinson, on her way to Sudan to discuss the prospect of peace there, welcomed the summit on family planning being held in London next week, organized by the Gates Foundation and the British Department for International Development. She described the foundation’s support as “counter-indicative to the mood — a Tea Party-led conservative mood — in the US” that has made political and financial support for family planning increasingly difficult.
On a tour to promote the fifth year of the Elders, Robinson said the work of the group, a sort of high-level advisory council, had become more urgent in the face of economic and political turmoil and signs of an increasing democratic deficit.
“We are very focused on tackling inequality ... Unfortunately, since we started five years ago these -issues have become more urgent. There is more of a need. Look at Sudan, South Sudan. Yes, we had the Arab spring but look now at democracy,” she said.