04.09.2013 | AWID

Evaluating progress in women’s rights and looking toward 2015

By Ana Abelenda [1]

The International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) that took place in Cairo in 1994, was a historical landmark for recognizing women’s and youth’s rights, particularly their sexual and reproductive rights (SRR). While the Latin American and Caribbean region has made some significant progress in implementation in some areas – educations for girls and women, and access to legal abortion in Mexico City, Cuba and Uruguay – there is still a lot of work to be done.

As the Latin American and Caribbean Civil Society Statement Towards Cairo+20, read by Nicaraguan activist Dorotea Wilson [2] in plenary, reminds us “This progress is taking place in a context in which structural inequalities impeding the full enjoyment of their rights for millions of people and threatening the sustainability of future generations continue to reproduce themselves while unjustifiable gaps persist.”

Some progress with ongoing challenges

The Montevideo Consensus adopted by Latin American and Caribbean governments on August 15, 2013 recognizes that both universal access to health and sexual and reproductive rights, and gender equality are key elements for sustainable development. Several women’s organizations present in the session celebrated the progressive language on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), commitment to implement comprehensive sexuality education, right to safe and legal abortion, access to emergency contraception, recognition of unpaid work and inequalities resulting from the unequal distribution of the care economy, and the importance of secular States [3]. Even though the region agreed on a common progressive stance to be taken to the International Cairo+20 Conference in 2014, implementation and resistant conservative positions remain as challenges.

According to Alessandra Nilo [4], in conversation with AWID, “The gap is still very big. Twenty years later here we are, speaking basically of the same issues and with many difficulties for governments to understand the link between sexual and reproductive rights and development issues.”

Regarding the obstacles to integrating the Cairo agenda into a broader sustainable development framework, Nilo points out, “The scarcely progressive vision of decision-makers at the national, regional and international government levels is one of the most problematic factors. Another concern in the region is the influence of religious institutions promoting a vision that is not based on scientific evidence or on the notion of rights. They are jeopardizing empowerment and autonomy for all persons, and particularly women”.

The involvement of women’s organizations has been key to advancing sexual and reproductive rights in the region and around the world, and also to challenge the hegemonic development model. However, funding for these organizations is also a serious challenge. Nilo says, “The issue of political and economic sustainability for social movements and women’s movements is an extremely important aspect for them to be able to really influence the development agenda”. She adds, “We are very concerned about international cooperation leaving the region, and particularly some areas that are key for the women’s, HIV/AIDS and human rights movements. Changes must be made for social movements to be able to access public funds in a transparent and sustainable way, and to seek innovative mechanisms for funding the women’s agenda – for instance, introducing a global tax on financial transactions”.

The Post 2015 Development Agenda, which will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) once the deadline to achieve them expires in 2015, must address women’s empowerment in relation to SRR and the Cairo agenda. Reflecting on this and on some proposals already on the table in the Post-2015 High Level Panel report, Nilo considers that “The idea of empowering women so their economy will improve is a welcome one, but the problem is what kind of model is being promoted beneath that economy”. For Nilo, “Empowerment under a model in which inequalities are being reproduced is not acceptable. The issue is not to increase women’s participation in the economy to create greater consumption but to review which development model is being promoted”.

The role of the Indigenous Women’s Movement

Peruvian Tarcila Rivera, Southern Region Coordinator for the Continental Network of Indigenous Women of the Americas, has been an indigenous women’s activist for the last 20 years. With her we discussed the Indigenous Women’s Movement’s contributions to the sustainable development agenda and the challenges of integrating a women’s rights perspective into their own activism.

Rivera says, “I think that, as indigenous women, we have a lot to contribute in terms of sustainability. Food production is a good example, indigenous women play an important role in agriculture, using our ancestral knowledge to produce food without agrochemicals and with natural manure. This knowledge must be recognized, recovered and validated in a broader sustainable development scenario”. She adds “It is important to see sustainability not only in economic terms but also as quality of life, because it is not always luxury – or anything that sparkles – that gives quality to our lives. We think we are happy in a community in which we can produce and decide on our own terms, including decisions about our bodies and the number of children we want to bear”.

Asked about the growing recognition of indigenous peoples and their world-views in the Bolivian and Ecuadorean Constitutions, Tarcila Rivera believes that there is still much to be done and says, “Some progress has been made in legal terms, like in the case of Bolivia, the first country where our statement of rights as indigenous people enjoyed constitutional status. The problem lies in implementation: even in gender equity programs, indigenous women continue to be invisible in the budget and in consultations. We demand to participate in the design of these programs so they are suitable to our culture, our language”.

According to Rivera, “We need better health services; better quality of education for our children, so that they have the same opportunity as others to access well-paid jobs and not always lower quality ones. All this is essential for sustainable development, including for indigenous peoples”.

But integrating a women’s rights perspective has been a challenge for the indigenous women’s movement. Rivera explains, “When we joined the Cairo+20 process we had to begin discussing sexual and reproductive rights. We asked ourselves, ‘What does it mean? How do we translate it to our language?’ Then we began talking about the body, about physical autonomy. And we began coming together with our elder, monolingual sisters so they could share their knowledge, for example on how they protected themselves in earlier days and why some have many children while others have very few. There is a whole series of knowledge and practices that we think must be taken into account for sustainability”.

Rivera emphasizes that, “We learned to walk together with our comrades from the feminist movement and now we are seeing which priorities for women we can agree on. Defining that we all have the right to decide about our bodies and the number of children we want to have, at what age you want to get married or not, is an important and much valued step forward for us.”

SRR within the post-2015 agenda

AWID also spoke to Ana Cristina González Vélez, from Articulación Feminista Marcosur and co-coordinator of the Regional CSO Articulation towards Cairo+20, on how to integrate the Cairo agenda, in particular SRRs, into a sustainable development framework post-2015:

"The post-2015 development agenda cannot be understood only as the agenda that will replace the MDGs, but as a much more ambitious agenda. We cannot discuss a new development agenda without putting equality, and gender equality in particular, at the centre. If we think of development as having two dimensions -the productive and reproductive- we cannot disassociate it from SRR because of the impact they have not only in women's bodies and lives but on production and reproduction patterns".

"The unequal sexual division of labour cannot be sidelined since it is one of the strongest expressions of inequality in which women bear a disproportionate burden affecting their participation in all spheres of social life. Feminist movements have a lot to offer to this debate by putting equality and the centre, promoting respect for diversity and pushing for a human rights approach that does not criminalize sexuality and women's rights."

The spirit of celebration among civil society delegations – including women’s, youth, indigenous, Afro-descendant, persons living with HIV and AIDS, sex workers and LGBTI networks and groups – at the closing of the Montevideo conference is testament to how times have changed. These recommendations will be the LAC region’s contribution to the UN Commission on Population and Development  (UNCPD) and the General Assembly meetings that will take place in New York in 2014. What remains to be seen is how the agreements are implemented and the political will to advance them in the post-2015 sustainable development agenda.


[1] Thanks also to Marisa Viana and Alejandra Scampini from AWID for their contributions to this article.

[2] Dorotea is head of the Network of Afro-Latin American and Afro-Caribbean and Diaspora Women (RMAA) and part of the Regional CSO Alliance for Cairo +20

[3] For more information, read also the analysis of the outcomes of the conference produced by RESURJ, DAWN, YCSRR and IWHC here.

[4] She is founder of Gestos-Brasil, Regional Secretary of LACASSO (Latin American and Caribbean Council of Non-Governmental Organizations Providing HIV/AIDS Services), advisor to the Resurj network and a member of the ICPD High Level Task Force for linking the sexual and reproductive rights agenda with the post-2015 discussions on sustainable development.