Rio+20: Women’s rights in reverse gear

The sustainable development challenges we are facing, such as food and nutrition insecurity, climate change, and social inequalities, are all interlinked. They are problems of complexity and of equity – between countries, generations, social groups, between those with power and those without. The new Rio agreement lacks vision and ambition on both. Equity, to begin with, was deleted from an earlier draft of the negotiating text. And gender equality is a good example of how Rio+20 will not get us far beyond the status quo:  Rio+20 has not secured any effective measures to end discrimination against women and ensure progress on gender equity within Member States, including provisions for equal statutory and customary rights to land, territories and resources, for women and men of different social groups. Without such measures, a room full of mostly male Ministers and Heads of State will likely still be lamenting widespread inequalities at Rio+40.

What many are selling as a success on gender (“Hooray, it is mentioned in the text!”) is, in reality, a ”continuous fight against a roll-back on long-standing commitments”, according to Rachel Harris, the advocacy coordinator of the Women’s Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO), an organization with a track record in pushing for gender equity in global environment and development policy. And we end up with an unwarranted sense of relief and gratitude every time this battle is won. The language in the final outcome is far too weak to push countries beyond the status quo in their legislation and practices, and it lacks reference to sexual and reproductive rights, which is a step backward in relation to what had already been achieved before Rio.

Rio+20 has also been a missed opportunity to move beyond the feminisation of poverty [1] and develop a more affirmative vision of gender equality in the context of sustainable development.

First, in the Rio+20 agreement, much like many other environment and development related agreements, we are faced with language that makes us believe that all women are the same: poor, vulnerable and in need of the same things. It does not make clear that it is in interaction with other factors determining opportunity and power, such as age, livelihood, or ethnicity, that gender becomes a defining factor of poverty and vulnerability – people’s needs don’t simply feed into a ‘needs box’, as Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, pointed out this week.

Second, in portraying ‘poor, vulnerable women’ as the most reliable instruments to deliver sustainable development, we risk placing the burden of responsibility for sustainable development right on their shoulders. Responsibility for change, first and foremost, lies with those in power to drive it. For sustainable development, and gender equality to become real as part of that, we need men and boys, women and girls engaged at all levels. Gender equality is not a zero-sum game whereby the empowerment of a woman signifies the disempowerment and exclusion of a man.

Rio+20 has failed to promote a vision whereby men and women, boys and girls, equal in opportunities and choices, work together for sustainable development.

Photo: Rio+20 Action for Women’s Rights from youthpolicy’s Flickr stream (Creative Commons)

[1] Arora-Jonsson, S. (2011). Virtue and vulnerability: Discourses on women, gender and climate change. In: Global Environmental Change 21 (2011); 744-751