#13 post-2015
Dorothy Aken‘Ova

Where Are the Sexual Rights?

Sexuality remains a field of conflict in many countries. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexed (LGBTI) activists hoped for a promising new development agenda. So far, they remain disappointed.

For sexual rights activists, the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo was a paradigm shift. For the first time challenges to improving the quality of life and sustainable development were not seen just in terms of population size. The ICPD raised the important issues of access and control over resources, who lived in rural or urban areas, who was healthy and who was not, who had access to education and decision-making power, and who did not. As a result, issues of access for young people to comprehensive sexual education and services, safe abortion access, and gender equality featured prominently in chapter 7 of the Program of Action. One outstanding aspect of this conference was the level of participation by civil society organisations. The feminist movement in particular, which worked hand in hand with governments, pushed the agenda to ensure this shift. The level of partnership was also unprecedented.

Barely one year after the ICPD, women gathered in Beijing for the Fourth World Conference on Women and worked hard to ensure that the issues taken off the negotiation tables in Cairo were brought to the front burner and that the language from previous agreements was not only expanded, but also made stronger in the Platform for Action (PFA). Paragraph 96 addressed “sexual and reproductive health”:

“The human rights of women include the right to have control and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. Equal relationships between women and men in matters of sexual relations and reproduction, including full respect for the integrity of the person, require mutual respect, consent and shared responsibility for sexual behaviour and its consequences.”

After Beijing, several institutions that played a key role at both Cairo and Beijing, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), unpacked the language in this paragraph to expand the discourse and negotiate for language to address “sexual rights” which would empower an individual to have the final say on what is done to or with their bodies.

The ICPD+5 review commenced at country level and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) gathered to assess the implementation of the Program of Action in a bid to compliment the efforts of the UN review. These reviews moved to regional meetings and the UN where conversations on emerging issues were held. The idea was to introduce a lot of phrasing into the final document that holds member states accountable for access to safe abortion services and address comprehensive sexual education, services for adolescents, sexual orientation, and women’s increasing vulnerability to HIV, among others.

“It seemed like some conservative governments and the Holy See had just woken up to the realisation that the resulting documents included language that posed a challenge to the status quo in their home countries”

Severe backlash

At this point, negotiations became tense as conservative governments began to equate phrasing on “sexual rights” with “sexual diversity” and “sexual orientation”. These tensions were again seen at Beijing +5 where the LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender/Transexual and Intersexed) activists’ nightmare began. The LGBTI movement had worked arduously, hand-in-hand with and as members of the feminist movement, to see to the inclusion of “sexual orientation” “sexual diversity” and “families” in the final documents since Cairo 1994. It seemed like some conservative governments and the Holy See had just woken up to the realisation that the resulting documents included language that posed a challenge to the status quo in their home countries resulting in a severe backlash that becomes visible in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) starting in 2000.

Whereas many civil society organizations (CSOs), especially women’s non-governmental organizations, hoped for a more intimate partnership with their governments in this all-important space where development goals for the “millennium” were going to be cast, the governments resisted and shrunk the space, limiting NGO participation to a mere shadow of the Cairo ’94 effort. Consequently, the final formulation of 8 MDGs excluded wording on “reproductive health and rights”, and “sexual health and rights”. This continued through to MDGs +5 where CSOs invested a huge amount of resources and mobilised globally, pushing to have this language included. This effort failed, however.

“It seems any attempt to protect marginalised populations is met with resistance or received with suspicion.”

As the Post-2015 Development Agenda kicks off, we are haunted by this nightmare. A nightmare in which conservative governments threaten to re-open negotiations on agreed outcome documents should there be any move to strengthen current negotiations by merely affirming and introducing language regarding LGBTI and reproductive rights. It seems any attempt to protect marginalised populations is met with resistance or received with suspicion. No wonder only 3 of the 8 goals appear to have met their targets. This is not because the other goals were particularly difficult to attain. They could have been attained if governments had opened the negotiations to wider input from the CSOs as they did in 1994, including the feminist movement in particular, and had accepted and worked with the CSOs’ contributions. As a matter of fact, the CSOs and the feminist movement are to be commended for their persistent work with their respective governments on the MDGs, expanding the scope of goals 3, 5 and 6 to address some of the key issues of concern to us. For instance, through Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and Global Fund initiatives, governments have been repeatedly told that Goal 6 is unattainable without interventions that focus on key populations including men who have sex with men, sex workers and intravenous drug users. More recently, these interventions have taken a human rights approach that enables implementation partners to challenge patriarchal values that impede access to services. But we must move beyond that. The Post-2015 Agenda offers us all a platform for recasting our development goals.

Tense negotiations for the Post-2015 Agenda

In the past few years, the UN Secretary General has launched campaigns and inaugurated committees we hope will deliver genuine input towards “Realising the Future We Want for All”. The United Nations Development Group has organized consultations on conflict and fragility; education; environmental sustainability; governance; growth and employment; health; hunger, food and nutrition; inequalities; population dynamics; energy; and water.

The policy atmosphere towards issues around sexual rights is tense as a result of on-going efforts by some governments to criminalize sexualities and enact laws that restrict CSOs’ access to foreign funding. If left unchecked, this backlash will have adverse impact on the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

“All world opinion leaders should speak out for a sexual rights agenda that interprets and operationalizes sexual rights in a broad perspective”

We should build on gains such as the South African Resolution, rise to the challenge of bridging the yawning gap between our technological, economic, and political development as a human race with our human rights achievements. All world opinion leaders should speak out for a sexual rights agenda that interprets and operationalizes sexual rights in a broad perspective, aware of intersections of rights, so that no single group or individual is left out of the future development agenda. For the Post-2015 Development Agenda, we ALL need to stand up and be counted.

Photo: “IMGP0326.jpg” by Richard Borbridge
2013 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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