Are women’s rights being sidelined at the Human Rights Council?

Community leaders in Kenya wear menstrual bracelets to show commitment to promoting menstrual health and hygiene. The Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on menstrual hygiene during its 47th session, although some NGOs said it should have gone further. (WSSCC / Jason Florio / News Aktuell via AP Images)

The Human Rights Council wrapped up its 47th regular session last week after three weeks of meetings on pressing issues ranging from the situation in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and vaccine access to systemic racism and climate change.

As is traditional for the June meeting, women’s rights took centre stage during the session, with states debating topics such as gender-based violence (GBV), menstrual hygiene management and maternal morbidities. But at a time when women’s rights are in crisis around the world, many NGOs were left disappointed that members of the UN’s top human rights body did not go further to protect and advance these rights.

Resistance from conservative states. A number of key resolutions related to women’s rights faced unprecedented pushback during this session, sparking concern that certain states were attempting to roll back rights that had been agreed on without question in years before.

The resolution on human rights in the context of HIV and AIDS – a key issue for women’s rights groups due to its connections with sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) – faced a total of 10 amendments tabled by Russia alone.

Russia sought to remove references to “restrictive and discriminatory laws and practices” as well as edit language on key populations and community-led initiatives. Although all the amendments were rejected and the resolution adopted by consensus, this was the very first time it was brought to a vote, which came as an unpleasant surprise at a time when lifesaving HIV/AIDs services worldwide have been severely restricted by the pandemic.

“The fact that it is necessary to bring these amendments and then call a vote on a resolution that is so important to the world currently, while we are in the middle of a global pandemic, is very concerning in terms of what that means around issues of sexuality, gender and so on,” said Pooja Badarinath, advocacy adviser for the Sexual Rights Initiative (SRI) at the Human Rights Council, speaking to Geneva Solutions.

“That was of great concern for what this means to intergovernmental spaces and key issues like HIV and human rights, which should not have and haven’t had this much resistance, so I think people have been quite worried,” Badarinath said.

Other resolutions faced similar resistance. The annual resolution on preventable maternal mortality and morbidity, which many women’s rights groups hailed as groundbreaking when it was first adopted a decade ago, had six amendments tabled against it from countries including Russia, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

These typically conservative states took issue with some of the language in relation to SRHR, including reference to “comprehensive sexuality education (CSE)”, which involves putting sex education on the curriculum for children and young people.

Again, although these amendments were defeated and the resolution adopted, many NGOs were concerned by states’ attempts to backslide on norms that had been accepted at the council for many years, let alone the failure in tackling some of the most pressing threats to women’s rights and health.

Paola Salwan Daher, an advocacy officer for the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), said the reference to sexual and reproductive health rights in the resolution on maternal mortality and morbidity was in itself a step in the wrong direction.

“[The resolution] could have gone further and been more robust. In particular, the formulation ‘sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights’ not only opens up the door to qualifiers but strikes out sexual rights entirely,” said Salwan Daher.

“Previous formulations obtained in HRC resolutions such as ‘the right to sexual and reproductive health’ are less siloed, more inclusive, and includes not only human rights standards enshrined in the right to health but also in a constellation of other human rights, as conceptualised by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR). It is of tremendous importance that core groups focus on building on existing standards, and not weaken them in a bid to gain consensus.”

With SHRH long being a contentious issue at the council, many NGOs join the CRR in its concern that these rights could easily be sidelined by states keen to avoid deadlock at the cost of women’s lives everywhere.

The largely online format of the meeting was also a source of worry for groups who viewed the cancellation of general debates in particular as preventing many smaller women’s rights-focused NGOs from taking part, denying them a global platform to highlight overlooked local or national issues.

“This session suffered from the global context of the pandemic and an ever restricted civil society space,” said Salwan Daher. “It is crucial that states increase and sustain their close collaboration and consultation with civil society organisations and human rights defenders, especially with those who have little to no access to Geneva.

“There were a lot of dynamics that played out during this session that didn't facilitate gender-related issues to be progressed,” she added.

Some success. The latest session did bring some progress for women’s rights. For example, a new resolution regarding menstrual hygiene management introduced by the Africa group was welcomed as an important step on a long-neglected issue that impacts women and girls’ health and rights globally.

“The Human Rights Council has never really discussed menstruation before, so it’s an interesting beginning of what can hopefully be a very substantive discussion around sexuality and menstruation,” said Badarinath. “I don’t know how far we’ll go but at least there’s some level of talking about the stigma, and looking at the economic, social and environmental factors.”

However, many groups and states alike were disappointed that the resolution did not go further, focusing solely on sanitation rather than addressing SRHR more broadly or referencing comprehensive sexual education. “It is a missed opportunity,” said Badarinath. “But it is still hopefully a first step that can be used to build something.”

CRR’s Salwan Daher agreed: “We very much welcome the fact that this issue has been put on the agenda of the Human Rights Council and look forward to working with women human rights defenders and States to ensure that SRHR are centered in this conversation.”

Despite many shortfalls in the resolutions' language and so many amendments hostile to women's rights being tabled, the fact that all resolutions were adopted despite intense opposition could be seen as a success in itself. “We're very glad that none of the amendments passed and they were all defeated, which shows that there is momentum to talk,” said SRI's Badarinath.

Momentum for change? While countries around the world continue to grapple with a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted women and girls, jeopardizing their access to healthcare and fundamental freedoms and pushing up unemployment, gender-based violence and deaths, the disappointment felt by many women's NGOs at the latest session is understandable.

“Every time there's a crisis we deprioritize things that are very specific to sexual and reproductive health across the world,” Badarinath told Geneva Solutions, citing reduced access to HIV medication, contraception, abortion services and sexual education as examples of how the pandemic has curtailed sexual and reproductive health rights around the world. “And we see the impact for years to come.”

But they remain hopeful that the latest crisis could eventually lead to change. The $ 40 trillion pledged to accomplish achieve gender parity by 2030 at the UN-backed Generation Equality Forum in Paris last month indicates That Many countries are ready to make women's rights a priority, both, and politically viable financially. Emerging feminist movements in the face of restrictions to SRHR, including tightened abortion laws in countries such as Poland, Argentina and the United States, are also a sign that women are ready to fight for their rights.

“We got very positive momentum from the Generation Equality Forum. We got very firm commitments. We got mobilization of feminist organizations and individuals, ”said Salwan Daher. “We are in the context of global protests for the realization of SRHR, and on top of that we are still in the pandemic that has disproportionately affected women and girls. And so I think that it's not a good signal that the Human Rights Council is sending out by backsliding on SRHR and making compromises. ”