Elisha Dunn-Georgiou is the International Policy Associate at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS).
You would think that this year's 51st session on the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) on Ending All Forms of Discrimination and Violence against the Girl Child would not be all that controversial compared with other themes the CSW has tackled. In past years the CSW has focused on themes like the equal participation of women in society, enhanced gender equality, or a reaffirmation of the Beijing conference—all topics that have strong opposition in countries around the world—especially those, like the United States, Sudan, and Iran that have refused to ratify the Convention to Eliminate All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). But the topic of this year's CSW should be a feel good topic that everyone—conservative or liberal—can rally around because everyone wants to get to the root causes that perpetuate violence against girls. Right? Well, maybe—it actually all depends on how you define violence and discrimination against girls.
If you are defining or linking violence and discrimination against girls as having anything to do with a lack of sexual and reproductive health and rights—then there is a very, very large international right-wing contingent present at the CSW that does not want to rally around that. Concerned Women for America, Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, Human Life International, United Families International, World Vision International, and a host of smaller, lesser-known, right-wing non-governmental organizations would instead like to rally around what they see as the two most egregious forms of violence against the girl-child—abortion and the disintegration of family values.
Perusing the list of events held during the CSW, its easy to see the right-wing point of view represented—with such panel presentations as "Womanhood and Motherhood: How to be a World Changer," hosted by Endeavour Forum, Inc or "Complete Equality: Gain or Loss?" hosted by the International Islamic Committee for Women and Child. Both of these groups are open about their conservatism regarding the ideals of CEDAW, but other right-wing groups are taking a much more subtle tack and cleverly utilizing the human rights language surrounding violence and discrimination against girls to attack the reproductive rights of women.
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This is particularly true in discussions and presentations about sex-selective abortion or as the international right prefers to call it—female feticide. Sex-selective abortion has become a hot topic among the international right. Media attention to practices in India and China where preference for male children has resulted in the use of ultrasounds to determine fetal sex has been a boon for the right-wing. Instead of focusing on the root societal causes of gender inequality that have given rise to disproportionate value placed on males, right-wing groups instead use this situation to try and assert arguments of fetal personhood and fetal rights.
The Worldwide Organization for Women, a right-wing group whose website states that its mission is to "strengthen, support, and unite women and men of faith in order to create a peaceful, moral, and loving environment that values the sanctity of human life, and preserves the natural family," hosted a panel presentation at the CSW titled "Female Infanticide." The point the right-wing panelists hammered home during the presentation is that abortion is an assault on the female child's right to be born and right to live. This use of fetal rights language is reaffirmed in the pamphlet, A Girl's Right to Live: Female Feticide and Girl Infanticide, that was distributed at the presentation by a coalition of predominantly right-wing organizations calling themselves the "Working Group on the Girl Child." The pamphlet not only echoed the "right to be born" language of the panelists but included references to human rights documents like the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as fear-based messages about the increases in organized crime, alcohol abuse, and wife-sharing that will surely result from abortion practices.
Many of the organizations involved in the "Working Group" are right-wing European groups like the Institute for Family Policy and the European Federation of Women Active in the Home whose chief concern is raising alarm about the "demographic crisis" in European countries. In 2006, for example, the Institute for Family Policy released a report (PDF) citing abortion as a main cause of death in Europe, second only to cancer.
The presence of groups such as this at the U.N. is alarming to say the least. But more alarming perhaps is the growing influence they wield and their ability to have their ultra-conservative voices heard when it comes to making policies on sexual and reproductive health rights internationally. To argue against sex-selective abortion on a platform based on a "right to be born" is of course a sneaky right-wing way to whittle away at the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls. Boy preference and sex-selective abortion is without a doubt one form of discrimination against girls and women. But, as Yakin Erturk, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, repeatedly pointed out at various presentations, this form of discrimination has the same root causes such as poverty, economics, and gender inequality that underlie all other forms of violence against women. And it is not until we address these issues that we will be able to truly meet the CSW objective of ending all discrimination and violence against the girl-child.