A U.N. meeting to assess progress in advancing the fight for women's equality that ended Friday had a dramatically different slant than a similar session held five years ago: This time, the United States was not trying to make an anti-abortion declaration a crucial theme.
Much of the 2005 meeting to take stock of what countries had done to implement the landmark platform of action adopted at the 1995 U.N. women's conference in Beijing was consumed by the Bush administration's demand that the final declaration make clear that women are not guaranteed a right to abortion.
By contrast, abortion was a non-issue during the two-week session that concluded Friday with a rousing speech by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had electrified the 1995 Beijing conference when she was first lady.
Her focus was on galvanizing fresh momentum to promote equal opportunities for women in business and education, to end discrimination under law and in practical reality, and to stop the "global pandemic" of violent attacks on women. She made a single reference to the U.S. increasing support for family planning as part of its Global Health Initiative, which also aims to reduce maternal and child deaths and HIV infections.
At the 2005 review conference, the Bush administration fought to insert language against abortion in the final declaration. But the U.S. faced strong international opposition and near the end of that meeting it backed down and dropped the demand.
In sharp contrast, the final declaration for the 2010 review was adopted with little fanfare during last week's ministerial session. It reaffirmed the Beijing platform, welcomed progress toward implementing it, and pledged more action to overcome the "challenges and obstacles" to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women.
Charlotte Bunch, the founding director of Rutgers University's Center for Women's Global Leadership who attended Beijing and both follow-up meetings, said the biggest difference "is the change in the U.S. government."
The Bush administration questioned the reaffirmation of the Beijing platform because of reproductive rights and the abortion issue, which were "hot issues," she said. But the Obama administration strongly backs the platform, as Clinton stressed Friday.
The Beijing platform calls for governments to end discrimination against women and close the gender gap in critical areas including health, education, employment, political participation and human rights.
At the 1994 U.N. population conference in Cairo, delegates approved a platform recognizing that abortion is a fact that governments must deal with as a public health issue. At Beijing the following year, delegates reaffirmed this and went further, asking governments to review laws that punish women for having abortions.
But attempts to approve stronger language on access to abortions failed at Beijing, and references to sexual rights and sexual orientation were dropped. Nonetheless, the Beijing platform stated for the first time that women have the right to "decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality ... free of coercion, discrimination and violence."
Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women's Health Coalition who also attended all three meetings, welcomed the "robust references" to the Cairo and Beijing conferences in resolutions adopted Friday by the Commission on the Status of Women.
She cited important measures on ending female circumcision, combating HIV and AIDS especially in women, and reducing maternal mortality, which has remained high and virtually unchanged since 1995.
Germain praised President Barack Obama and Clinton for understanding that it is impossible to improve women's health without a broader commitment to human rights and equality.
Bunch, now a senior scholar at the Rutgers center, welcomed the commission's adoption of another resolution Friday, introduced by Egypt, endorsing the creation of a single U.N. body to promote the advancement of women, to be headed by an undersecretary-general.
While reproduction health wasn't an issue at this conference, Patricia Licuanan, a former head of the Commission on the Status of Women who chaired the committee responsible for drafting the Beijing platform, said "I don't think it's less of an issue ... because ... the church, religious fundamentalism, is on the upsurge."
"I think it's still very much around," said Licuanan, who is president of Miriam College in Manila, in the Philippines. "That's part of the fear of any type of movement to open up discussions on Beijing. I really would fear that possibly (the platform) might (go) backward."
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