Beijing turned 15 this year and its anniversary celebration took place at the UN in New York. No, not Beijing the city, which is considerably older than fifteen, but the 1995 UN Fourth World Conference on Women, which is generally known as “the Beijing Conference”, or in activist circles, simply “Beijing”. Earlier this year, in the first two weeks of March, the anniversary was commemorated in policy and networking among women activists and allies during the proceedings of the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). In its daily presence at the two week CSW, ARC International played a critical role in the coordination and facilitation of various sexual rights activities.
Each year, the Commission on the Status of Women takes place in New York at UN headquarters, and is attended by a few thousand women activists, policymakers and government officials. The March 2010 CSW session was dedicated to a review of progress since and implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, the outcome document that governments produced with NGO input in 1995. During each CSW, advocates and policymakers host public education workshops (“side events”), lobby governments (particularly on language in various resolutions), and convene networking caucuses and meetings. Lesbians, bisexuals and trans women and men have been attending the CSW in increasing numbers, and have created visibility in all elements of the proceedings. At Beijing +15, ARC contributed to a number of projects that helped enhance this vibrant presence.
ARC coordinated the lesbian/LBT caucus and in doing so, helped provide a strategizing and networking space for participants from countries as diverse as Fiji, Mexico, Serbia, South Africa, Namibia, Turkey, Uganda, Belgium, Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada and the US. These regular caucus gatherings provided safe and strategic space as we planned for participation in various meetings and also shared information about our networks and movements. In particular, the Coalition of African Lesbians convened a strategy meeting and also shared with the caucus some of its programming and priority areas for upcoming months.
In close collaboration with the Council for Global Equality, ARC spearheaded the convening of a first of its kind side event at the CSW – a panel that focused specifically on US evangelical influence on sexual rights movements outside the United States. While this discussion focused in large part on the anti-gay bill that was circulating at the time in Uganda, other areas of concern included the breadth of US right wing anti-sexual and reproductive rights organizing and specific attacks on women’s health and rights. This event was standing room only, and received great praise from allies in attendance.
Speakers included Val Kalende, a Ugandan lesbian activist from Freedom and Roam Uganda who was very involved in organizing against the bill; Jessica Horn, a consultant and women’s rights activist who has recently focused on issues related to fundamentalisms; Kapya Kaoma, the Zambian Anglican priest who exposed direct US influence in the development of the Ugandan bill; Jodi Jacobson, the current editor of the website “Reproductive Health Reality Check”; Jeff Sharlett, the author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, and Cynthia Rothschild, a sexual rights activist and a consultant with ARC. Co-sponsoring groups included Human Rights Watch’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
Alongside the public work of the caucus, ARC convened and facilitated private meetings with various UN agency staff who focus on issues related to women’s rights and empowerment. The purpose of these meetings was to learn what new entry points might exist for strengthening work on sexuality; to call on those staff to do that work within their own agency programming, both in documentation and in collaborative engagement with civil society; to learn more about what the UN system is doing on these issues and how to potentially collaborate / develop additional relationships with staff or those in UN country teams; and to flag that our communities want much more sophisticated work on gender and sexuality as planning for the new UN gender entity evolves. Lastly, we discussed financial opportunities to access multiyear and short term funds from various global and country-level sources. ARC sees this investment as part of a longer term relationship building process between LGBT – and particularly lesbian – activists and staff of the UN system.
On a policy level, and in informal capacities, ARC helped to facilitate participation of caucus members in country lobbying in the resolution negotiations, some of which had specific relevance for sexual rights and women’s rights advocates. Among these were resolutions on HIV&AIDS and maternal mortality & morbidity, both of which were ultimately adopted, but which became controversial because of certain governments’ resistance to including language related to sexuality generally, and women’s sexuality in particular.
*In a threat to language governments agreed to at the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), the resolution on “Eliminating Preventable Maternal Mortality and Morbidity through the Empowerment of Women” provided a platform for battles over references to family planning and unsafe abortion, human rights of women, and health services, among other topics. Sexual rights activists and ally states prevailed in a number of items, including in adding “empowerment” to the title of the resolution, but only after protracted struggle.
The HIV resolution, “Women, the girl child and HIV and AIDS”, while useful for its agreed language related to women, violence, stigma, disability, and sexuality education, among other items, presented a particularly disappointing outcome in states’ inability to retain a reference to the International HIV and Human Rights Guidelines. The Guidelines, which were developed initially in 1996 and revised in 1998, and issued through the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNAIDS, are generally held as one of the more forward thinking UN documents related to HIV & AIDS. The publication has become a flashpoint for conservative states and NGOs because recommendations promote a human rights framework and reference sex workers and “men who sleep with men” as groups of people who are worthy of rights in the context of the AIDS pandemic. The Guidelines encourage states to engage in reform ofcriminal laws and to promote anti discrimination efforts to prevent and reduce HIV related violations.
A number of other noteworthy sexual rights-related events transpired during the CSW which ARC’s colleagues helped to convene. The Dutch government hosted a groundbreaking official session on “Human Dignity of Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender women”. UNDP and a number of HIV and VAW-focused NGOs hosted a session entitled “Outlawing Women – Effects of Laws Criminalizing Women’s Sexuality”. Other sexual rights sessions addressed homophobia in schools, female condoms, rights of sex workers and sexuality and development. These popular events offered a welcome alternative to the usual anti-abortion, anti-gay programming of conservative and right wing NGOs, many of which are present at each CSW.*
Through its strategic and collaborative efforts, ARC contributed to momentum built by sexual rights advocates during and since the Beijing Conference years ago. Since the mid 1990s, LGBT activists, along with those focusing on sexual and reproductive rights and women’s health, have persistently used UN spaces to promote awareness about rights and health of “gender-nonconforming” people. The CSW remains an important venue for these efforts, both to carry forward these struggles, but also to counter conservative fundamentalist opposition. ARC remains committed to movement building and leadership development in these arenas, and sees its CSW and Beijing efforts as supporting that mission.
*Asterisked sections are excerpted from Sexuality Policy Watch’s March 2010 CSW blog by Cynthia Rothschild. See http://www.sxpolitics.org/?p=4041