The Cairo conference and reproductive rights

Wednesday, December 14, 1994

One of the more controversial events of 1994 was the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), held in Cairo in September. GISELA DUeTTING, who attended from the Women's Global Network for Reproductive Rights, based in the Netherlands, gives an overview of the conference and what it did or didn't achieve. The article is abridged from the WGNRR newsletter.

Approximately 15,000 people were in Cairo for this UN meeting. About 4000 of them attended the NGO Forum, which was organised next door to the official conference.

As coordination staff of the Women's Global Network, we decided to take part in the NGO Forum to present our point of view on reproductive rights and population policies, to speak out against the arbitrary treatment of women's lives and about the real causes of global problems, from a feminist perspective.

I represented the coordination office at the NGO Forum, together with Loes Keysers and Judith Richter, who concentrated on the campaign against the anti-fertility "vaccines". At the NGO Forum, we presented a series of workshops, together with the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, Womanhealth Philippines and the Committee on Women, Population and the Environment, titled "From Malthus to Cairo: What's next?".

The official preparatory committee meetings (prepcoms) for the ICPD had culminated in Prepcom 3, which took place in New York in April. After Prepcom 3, it became clear that in the official conference in Cairo, a hard battle would have to be fought by women lobbyists. Although most of the final document (the Plan of Action) was agreed upon, crucial parts were bracketed — the UN jargon for "still to be agreed upon by all". Reproductive and sexual rights were still in brackets, abortion, safe motherhood, but also sustainable development.

As ICPD came nearer, feminist women with outspoken views had a hard time. In some countries like Chile and the Philippines, feminists were taken out of the official delegation. Sometimes, initial liberal government positions were adjusted, especially under the pressure from the Catholic Church. Last-minute lobby work and public meetings took place in an effort to influence public opinion.

Wide range

The NGO forum, held in the Cairo Sports Stadium, included workshops, information booths and a press room. The NGOs were not working towards a joint declaration or similar outcome. As a result, the forum had the feel of a loose mix of organisations with very little in common. The bulk of NGOs present consisted of mainstream population and family planning organisations, feminist groups, women's organisations, religious and "pro-life" groups and some medical organisations.

Different NGO people tended to follow their own "paths". If you were a great believer in population growth reduction, you could fill your day only with lectures that would reinforce your opinion. If you were a religious person, you could go from the religious caucus at 9am to presentations like "The civilised role of Islam in family health and women's integrity". Women could start with the women's caucus and continue with a more than full women's program.

Organisations claiming to represent women's interests varied enormously. Groups presenting workshops ranged from Terra Femina, the Asian Women Human Rights Council and the Women's Collective of Matagalpa to the Azerbaijan National Women's Association, the Islamic Institute for Women in Iran and the Tunisian section of the World Movement of Mothers.

There was little cross-over between the various streams, let alone discussion or major confrontations — with the exception of the occasional Muslim fundamentalist who came into various women's sessions to loudly announce that these subjects were against Islam and that women had no problems under Islam.

In general, the NGO Forum was rather dull. Only on Monday, various women's groups organised a demonstration at the forum entrance. It was a clear indication that among women's groups, especially Indian women's groups, there was the disturbed feeling that the ICPD conference was sliding into a big "consensus on population policies".

Within workshops organised by women's organisations, a large variety of topics were covered: human rights and women's rights, abuse in population policies, reproductive rights and sexual rights, initiatives in women's health and a wealth of specific issues.

The workshops that the WGNRR presented, together with BWHBC, CWPE and Womanhealth, were on the population paradigm, women's reproductive rights and men's reproductive responsibilities, and on confronting the real issues of over-consumption, the global economy and militarism. We examined the political economy of reproductive health/rights and sustainable development, tracing the history of current ideologies which centre on population and proposing alternative feminist analysis and models for action.

Changing the agenda

During the daily meetings of the women's caucus, coordinated by Women's Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO), about 400 people were present, the overwhelming majority women. WEDO would take all that came out in the women's caucus to the official ICPD. There the lobbyists did their work. The woman's lobby was considered by many as one of the most organised and effective at the ICPD.

The results of Cairo, and how you judge the process and the outcome, depend very much on your perspective. Ten years ago, in Mexico, women were very much outside the main conference. Since then, women have definitely gained profile. At the ICPD in Cairo and in the Plan of Action, empowerment of women was central.

Many women at the ICPD commented that the major achievement was that reproductive rights were on the agenda and reproductive rights language was for the first time officially put forward at the UN level. Many found that this was a crucial step forward, albeit not sufficient.

For me the major gain was in the process, specifically the opportunities created for many women's groups, campaigning at national level for reproductive rights.

Many people referred to the Cairo forum as a "success" for NGOs. Given the widely varying interests (and political and economic power) of the NGOs present, the question is: success for whom? Who will benefit from the gains at international level? When it comes to implementing the Plan of Action, which elements will take priority? Will money be made available, and where will it go?

The ICPD was a political conference; a lot of attention and time went into negotiations on the details of the Plan of Action. Beneath this focus on letters and words were clashing underlying values.

A critique of the analysis of population in the document and its relations with global economic development, poverty, the position of women and environmental degradation was very much missing. The criticism of population policies voiced at the NGO Forum gave rise to a false contradiction between the importance of abortion and development. This "false controversy" did not filter further into the lobby process at the official conference, which remained firmly focused on reproductive health within the framework of population policies.

Therefore, fundamental to any assessment of the ICPD remains the fact that reproductive rights were subsumed under the heading of population policies. In the Plan of Action, reproductive health is still seen within the framework of population policies, notwithstanding that the target-oriented language finally disappeared.

I believe that one of the most important agenda points of feminist groups must be to uphold the empowering meaning of women's reproductive rights (which includes a continuous critical, contextualised redefinition).

Forming a broad-based coalition seems another essential step. Such a coalition can work on what seems most urgent, including: continuous criticism of population thinking (above all delinking development, environment and reproductive rights from population "stabilisation"); developing alternative policy proposals that include women; and fighting for women's reproductive and sexual rights and for a gender-sensitive health care approach.

While the abortion debate touched on the core of gender inequality, the discussion in Cairo distracted public attention from factors which undermine just, humane development, and reinforced the so-called solution of fertility control, rather than rethinking the population question and its development context.