Women's rights – the final issue of the summit

The issue of health care is not the uncontentious political issue that we in the West might assume
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The Independent Online

The Earth summit is already famous for its fudges and failures. No targets were set for increasing the use of renewable energy or for further cancellation of Third World debt or for ending rich countries' agricultural subsidies. This was a summit that could only reflect, rather than change, the priorities of those who gathered in its enormous, airless rooms.

The Earth summit is already famous for its fudges and failures. No targets were set for increasing the use of renewable energy or for further cancellation of Third World debt or for ending rich countries' agricultural subsidies. This was a summit that could only reflect, rather than change, the priorities of those who gathered in its enormous, airless rooms.

Yet one huge potential failure was narrowly avoided hours before the conference closed, even if all that was salvaged was a fudge. The very last paragraph to be agreed in the summit's action plan was paragraph 47, which refers to increasing the capacity of health services throughout the world to deliver basic health care to everyone. This might not seem to be an obvious sticking point for a summit that was also dealing with massively contentious issues such as trade rules and fishing quotas. Why wasn't it just nodded through?

The problem was that it touched on a hugely sensitive issue that has hardly been brought up in the coverage of the summit, and yet which is the very bedrock of development. It touched on women's rights.

The provision of health care is not the uncontentious political issue that we in the West might now assume. On the contrary, because it is partly about the provision of reproductive health services, of contraception and of abortion, it is one of the great battlegrounds for women who are struggling for their freedom. In many countries, it is also bound up with the issue of genital mutilation, or female circumcision. If aid is to increase for the provision of health services in the world's poorer countries, at the very least it should not go to support doctors who carry out routine genital mutilation.

While an international human rights lobby constantly argues that women's rights should be respected in agreements on health care, influential conservative governments are now standing out against them. The Vatican and Saudi Arabia hold sway over hearts and minds in the Christian and the Muslim worlds. The United States, home of modern feminism, now often acts against women's rights. Take, for instance, George Bush's recent decision to withdraw funding from the United Nations Population Fund, which provides assistance to poorer countries on population control, health and sexual matters, because it also provides advice on abortions. One spokesperson for the UN agency said recently that the US's decision could cost the lives of tens of thousands of women and children.

In previous international agreements on health care, the UN has apparently used a form of words that can at least get past both sides of the debate. It says that services should be provided consistent with cultural and religious values, thus appeasing the conservatives, and it is also says that services should be consistent with human rights and fundamental freedoms, which means that those who believe in women's rights can accept it.

Even this kind of fudge at first seemed unacceptable to the conservatives at the Johannesburg summit. At a preparatory meeting the usual reference to fundamental human rights was removed. Interestingly, the Americans then opposed reopening the discussion, claiming that it would be impossible to get through the business in time. "We have no problem with its content, but it's a procedural problem," said a United States government spokesperson.

Other Western delegates told reporters from the Associated Press news agency that in fact the Americans were not interested in supporting the inclusion of the lost words because they could be interpreted as supporting women's right to abortion. The delegates also suggested that America was eager not to push on human rights in any way that would be likely to alienate conservative allies such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. "This is state repression in the name of cultural diversity," one spokesperson from the Human Rights Caucus told Associated Press.

The wording was finally reinstated at the very last minute, under pressure from other delegates. In all the kerfuffle of the conference, this spat will no doubt be soon forgotten, and it may be seen as a frivolous Western concern. Who cares about whether an international agreement theoretically gives half-hearted protection to doctors giving advice on abortion, when in fact the harshest wording in the world probably wouldn't have any impact?

But the women who lined the pavements on the way to the summit on Tuesday morning clearly didn't think it was a frivolous issue. Neither did women such as Mary Robinson, the UN's Human Rights Commissioner, who told Reuters that if the wording on human rights was not reinstated, it would be a "very bad day for women".

Of course the agreement is symbolic. But it is a symbol that represents a pressing reality behind the summit. Women are the majority of the world's poor, the majority of the world's hungry, the majority of the world's illiterate people. If that is to change, women need not only aid, but also basic rights to health care, education and equality before the law. In a changing international environment, there is a real danger that those rights are being sidelined.

The fear is now too often expressed that arguing about women's rights is a Western imposition on cultural diversity. And yet taking account of cultural diversity is not just about taking account of the voices of powerful men. If you listen to the often silenced women from the Islamic world or the South, you hear arguments in favour of women's rights that are just as powerful as those coming from the mouths of Western women. Far from imposing our values on the women of other cultures, our governments often seem to be ignoring their calls for help.

For instance, you would be forgiven for thinking that all the debate from Western governments about how to rebuild Afghanistan has meant that the international community has pressed forward with support for women's rights alongside aid. There has, indeed, been some support for women's education and health care and participation in politics, but the West continues to support warlords who flagrantly abuse women's rights. And, incomprehensibly, there has been no help at all given by any government to the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (Rawa), the only Afghan organisation calling for a secular state and women's equality. The argument for this lack of support is that Rawa's vision is too radical for an Islamic culture – and yet it is born out of the resilience and intelligence of Afghan women themselves.

In Nigeria, women are also calling out for international support for their human rights against the imposition of sharia law in some parts of the country. Interestingly, international pressure helped one woman who was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, Safiya Hussaini, to win her appeal. But another woman, Amina Lawal, is now awaiting the outcome of a similar case, and the danger is that such pressure is becoming more muted.

At the Johannesburg summit, the final fudge on that final paragraph tried to suggest that all cultural and religious values are compatible with fundamental human rights. Yet women throughout the world are demanding that their human rights should not be sacrificed to other values, and we should never be afraid to support their demands.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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