By Badara Jeng
March 11th marked the beginning of the two week-long UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). As per the draft documents acquired by the Guardian, the United States’ refusal to reaffirm their support for the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action agreement is being seen as a significant threat to international agreements on women’s rights. Shannon Kowalski, Director of Advocacy and Policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition, explains: “One of the first things they have tried to do is block the reaffirmation of Beijing and subsequent documents…trying to downplay the political importance of this document as setting out the vision for women’s human rights.”
Despite the Beijing agreement being non-binding and therefore unenforceable upon any of the 189 countries that have willingly adopted it, the agreement is still viewed and treated as the blueprint for global women’s rights. Beijing specifically tackles 12 key areas pertaining to women, ranging from fighting against female genital mutilation to promoting more equitable representation of women in mainstream media. The United States’ huge influence on the world stage has made people like Muadi Mukenge, Chief of Development and External Relations at reproductive health NGO, Ipas, fear that the decision to back away from this agreement could “set a precedent.”
Muadi also highlights that there are a number of states that have been quite “hostile to the consensus they agreed previously” and therefore to have one of the most powerful nations in the world aligning with countries such as Russia on this issue is all the more worrying. This shift in US policy isn’t all that surprising as under the Trump administration, US negotiators have found themselves aligning with nations such as Iran and Saudi Arabia on a number of issues. This is significant because these are countries that have consistently fought against agreements supporting women’s rights and issues around their reproductive health.
The delegations that are sent to these UN Committees on women’s issues have changed under the Trump administration, reflecting an overarching policy change at the Oval Office. One of the US delegates to the CSW this year, Valerie Huber, senior policy advisor in the Department of Health and Human Services, is an advocate of abstinence-only sex education. She was accompanied by Bethany Kozma, senior advisor for women’s empowerment at the US Agency for International Development, who also happens to be an anti-choice activist. In response, Shannon Kowalski stated that: “They [the US] are coming into the negotiations in a way that is very aggressive and that advances an anti-gender, anti-woman position from the very start.” She continued: “Similarly, in 2018, the US pushed to change the language used in documents in front of the United Nations Human Rights Committee.”
In response to these allegations, a US official stated that the Trump administration “is against discrimination of any kind” and is “unwavering in its support for women’s empowerment.” They also added: “As the world’s largest bilateral donor to global health programs, the United States remains committed to helping women and children thrive, particularly in countries where the need is greatest.”