The importance of language: Why feminists are concerned about the wording in the Asia-Pacific Beijing+20 Ministerial Declaration 

The negotiations between States at the United Nations on documents and declarations are agreed upon by consensus and it all comes down to language. An issue where language is left out can result in the loss of protection in that area. Conversely, if language on a certain issue is included, civil society has one more tool to advocate with their governments to further those areas. It also means that States will have to pledge resources and funding for them to comply with their international commitments.

The 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing did exactly that. At Beijing governments drew on and moved beyond the language they agreed upon at earlier international conferences, including the 1985 Women’s World Conference. It also reinforced some of the language that first appeared in the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). Opponents to certain issues, such as family planning and abortion, did everything in their power to stop their governments from including language on that. Regardless, States reached a consensus and included these themes. They also furthered language on sexual and reproductive health and gender equality in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPfA).

The recent Beijing+20 Review shows that the struggle to transform realities through language continues. Some governments have welcomed progressive language on issues, whilst others are still hesitant to move forward on emerging concerns. In other cases some governments still want to hold on to agreements dated twenty years ago and have even attempted to step away and back out from previous consensus. This led to a washed down final Ministerial Declaration that left out important concerns for women in the Asia and Pacific region.

The approved Asian and Pacific Ministerial Declaration on Advancing Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment mentioned the need to provide further political space to young women and women with disabilities, but made no reference to the rights of women migrant workers, including migrant domestic workers—a roll back on Beijing commitments and a lack of recognition for what is one of the largest issues in the region. States also tried to selectively edit language in the Declaration to try to omit key phrases already agreed on globally related to women’s diverse experience of families and women’s roles going beyond the family sphere.

“The need to reach consensus resulted in the lowest common denominator in many cases, with the final regional Declaration sadly reflecting an erosion of proposed, progressive language and diminished commitments in a range of areas,” reads the Civil Society Steering Committee statement on the approved Declaration.

Below are some of the other issues that civil society organizations identified were left out from the agreed Declaration:

  • Caste—The reference to caste was removed from the Declaration, despite caste-based discrimination and violence being strongly linked to women’s social and economic situations and being a key obstacle to achieving gender equality.

  • Comprehensive sexuality education—States recognized that comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) needs to be evidence-based, but the Declaration failed to mention that it should be rights-based, non-discriminatory and gender sensitive, and delivered in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of children and adolescents, which had been agreed in the 2013 outcome document of the 6th Asia Pacific Population Conference.

  • Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity—Although individual states suggested including language on sexual orientation and gender identity, ultimately none of the language was retained in the final Declaration and States only agreed to a brief mention of “diverse groups of women.”

  • Climate Change—Mentions of long-accepted international principles of “common but differentiated responsibilities of governments to address climate change” were left out from the Declaration. This undermines the ability of countries in the region that are most vulnerable to climate change to cope with its impacts.

  • Land Rights—Despite the recognition that women’s inability to access land exacerbates poverty among women, governments failed to include commitments in the Declaration to provide women with full and equal access to land, and the right to equal inheritance.

  • Conflict—States confined their discussion around women and conflict to a narrow definition of conflict. The Declaration did not include any language related to diverse forms of intra-state and inter-state conflict present today in the Asia and the Pacific region.

  • Sexual Rights and Reproductive Health Rights—The Declaration failed to reaffirm the human rights of women to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health and to do so free of coercion discrimination and violence, which was agreed in the Beijing Platform for Action, It failed to include any provision to guarantee women’s human right to information about a full range of contraceptive methods and access to quality methods of their choice, with full respect for their rights to bodily integrity and autonomy, informed consent.

  • Financing Mechanisms—Directive language to increase financing or strengthen financing mechanisms, including on the Green Climate Fund, was diluted and/or removed from the Declaration, despite individual states recognizing the need for increased financing in their country submissions.

Read the Statement by the Civil Society Steering Committee on the Declaration.

facebook rndyoutube rnd twitter rnd