Ana Cristina Gonzalez

SANTIAGO, Chile (WOMENSENEWS)–In a week when the Bush administration was promoting its commitment to women’s rights in Washington, its third try at weakening an international agreement on women’s rights backfired at a United Nations gathering here.

The effort had to do with what was going to be a routine expression of support for the Cairo Consensus, formally known as the Programme of Action of the of the United NationsInternational Conference on Population and Development, which met in Cairo in 1994. That was an agreement among 179 United Nations members that meeting women’s individual needs for reproductive and sexual health information and services was the best way to speed any nation’s economic development and slow its population growth.

The Clinton administration was a leader in negotiating the accord and appropriated $550 million in 1995 for international family planning programs. The Bush administration has steadily reduced funding from the 1995 high water mark, and has restricted its use.

This time, the Bush administration’s strategy took the form of an effort to heavily edit the Santiago gathering’s boilerplate draft declaration of support for the Cairo Consensus. Its delegation sought to delete references to “reproductive health,” “family planning services,” “sexual health” and “condoms,” and make other changes. But they did not get far. The region’s health and development policy-makers, meeting under the auspices of the U.N.’s Economic Commission of Latin America and the Caribbean, rejected the changes in a vote that left the United States stranded. Then they went on to strengthen their declaration of support for the Cairo Consensus. Of the 38 country delegations present, the U.S. delegation was the only holdout.

“There are numerous statements in the declaration to which we cannot subscribe,” the head of the U.S. delegation, Lucy Tamlyn, told the closing conference session. “There are also significant omissions. Therefore, the United States respectfully disassociates from the declaration.”

The action came the day before President Bush gave a speech extolling his record on women. “The advance of liberty and the advance of women’s rights are ultimately inseparable,” Bush said. “Every man and every woman in every culture was born to live in freedom.” Meanwhile, at a New York meeting Thursday of the Commission on the Status of Women, the U.S. delegation stood alone, 1 to 41, in its refusal to reaffirm the Platform of Action of the 1995 World Conference on Women at Beijing. That conference document also affirmed women’s right to education, civil rights and reproductive health information and services.

“A sea change is taking place in the world, and the United States is isolated and being left behind,” said Terri Bartlett, vice president of Population Action International, a Washington, D.C.-based family planning advocacy organization, who was an observer at the Santiago meeting.

At stake in the debate is U.S. financial and political support for overseas voluntary family planning programs, run by nongovernmental organizations, governments and international institutions, that together provide millions of women in the developing world with information, contraceptives, education and counseling on sexual and reproductive health care, and skilled obstetric care before, during and after pregnancy.

Debate Over Language on Reproductive Rights, Debt

The Cairo Consensus of 1994 abandoned the global focus at that time on demographic targets and quotas as the way to slow population growth and further economic development. Instead, it committed the 179 participating nations to invest $17 billion by 2000 in meeting the needs of individuals for education and reproductive health care and services, especially for women and young people. Actual spending has fallen far short of that amount.

The Santiago gathering was officially a technical meeting of the population and development arm of the Economic Commission of Latin America and the Caribbean to report on regional progress toward the Cairo goals. Country delegations first agreed over U.S. objections to draft a simple declaration reaffirming the Cairo Consensus. The draft used only exact language from the original Programme of Action and was expected to pass without controversy.

But members of the U.S. delegation sought to remove the “reproductive rights” references and to insert language asserting parental control over all adolescent decisions on sexual and reproductive health matters. They also tried to delete references to a “brain drain” from the region and to its “heavy burden” of external debt, among further changes.

Other countries then offered their own amendments to the draft declaration. After an all-night closed-door negotiating session, the final declaration not only rejected most of the U.S. changes but reiterated support for the Cairo accord in stronger language. The new declaration added references to the dangers of unsafe abortions, urgings for higher levels of spending on family planning programs by donor countries, stronger calls for gender equity and equality for all races and ethnic groups and a broader recognition of adolescents’ right to independent decision-making.

Some Delegates Puzzled by U.S. Shift

The Santiago meeting was the third regional population and health policy gathering to rebuff Bush administration efforts to recast the Programme of Action in more conservative ideological terms. Delegates to the Asia conference in Bangkok, Thailand, last December, and the European nations’ meeting in Geneva in January also rejected similar proposed U.S. amendments to conference documents.

Ana Cristina Gonzalez, head of the Colombia delegation, said she was surprised by the strength of the Latin American and Caribbean stand.

“It reflects a very homogeneous consensus on ending poverty and reaffirming that the sexual and reproductive rights of women are fundamental,” she said. “It is important that the United States was able to express its differences in a transparent manner, but these sentiments are not shared in the region, as became clear.”

Other delegates appeared puzzled by the U.S. shift. “It’s very unusual that the United States is trying to return to the past, before Cairo,” said Maria Eugenia Romero, a member of the Mexican delegation and director general of Equidad de Genero: Ciudadania, Trabajo y Familia (Gender Equity: Citizenship, Labor and Family) in Mexico City.

Under earlier Bush administration policy changes, overseas groups that advocate abortion law reform are barred from receiving U.S. assistance, even if they use their own funds; while a third of all U.S. Agency for International Development family planning spending must go to promote education in sexual abstinence for adolescents.

Joanne Omang is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

For more information:

United Nations Population Fund:

Population Action International: