Gender Politics at the U.N.

The United Nations has been holding a series of conferences ostensibly devoted to the subject of development. I have attended the last two meetings, entitled: “The World Summit on Social Development,” held in Copenhagen from 6-12 March 1995, and “The International Conference on Population and Development,” held in Cairo last October. These two were preceded by the 1992 “The World Summit on Environment and Development” (Rio de Jainero) and will be followed by “The World Conference on Women,” to be held in Beijing this September. As varied as these topics may seem, each is examined from the unvarying perspective that women’s fertility is the source of the problems we now face and that, therefore, it must be controlled. The connection between this constant message and the topics addressed may in some cases seem tenuous, but the assumption underlies all the rhetoric about saving the earth, sustaining development, eradicating poverty or ensuring women’s rights.

All the UN approaches to women are subsumed by the driving need to control and curtail their fertility. When it comes to women’s health, the causes of women’s mortality converge on maternal mortality and AIDS. The solution to the first is “safe abortion” and “safe motherhood,” the latter meaning no children except under the most perfect circumstances. The means of prevention for the second is condoms — a birth control method. The purpose of educating women was explicitly stated by U.S. Under Secretary of the State Tim Wirth, just before leaving for the Cairo conference. He said that “women will be less willing to think about starting a family and having children if we get them education.” UNESCO agrees. It has stated that “education is one of the keys to improving quality of life, for it has been proven that educated women in all countries have smaller families.” In other words, having a large family means not to be educated.

Families are, of course, the greatest proliferators of children. Several papers published by the UN indicate another, more subtle approach to the problem of fertility by redefining the family. “Building the Smallest Democracy at the Heart of Society” suggests that “major attention should be given to examining and to fostering new roles and responsibilities for men. Wider access to family life education, paternity and parental leave and other incentives could be provided to encourage and enable fathers to play wider new roles, especially with regard to home-making, child care, child growth and development, family planning as well as more responsible paternity.” New roles for men would mean that “women should be enabled to explore new opportunities for education and employment.” Other UN papers make clear that, despite using the rhetoric of the caring family, the real agenda here is not sharing family responsibilities, but changing gender roles in order to reduce fertility. If gender roles can be changed, there will be less proliferation of children. “Gender Perspective in Family Planning Programs,” another UN paper, states that: “In order to be effective in the long run, family planning programs should not only focus on attempting to reduce fertility within existing gender roles, but rather on changing gender roles in order to reduce fertility.”

The UN redefinition of the family now parades under the rubric, adopted in Copenhagen, of “the family in all its forms.” The family is no longer defined by a husband and wife joined in a covenantal union open to the generation of children, but by any form of association that seems to satisfy its members, so long as it is not procreative. That would be “irresponsible.” The form of the “family” is not so important as the “reproductive rights of couples and individuals.” And, of course, “reproductive rights” do not mean the right to generate new life through sexual intercourse, but the obligation not to. Therefore new forms of the family that do not or cannot propagate meet the UN criterion of responsibility: conserving resources for “future generations.”

In the conferences I attended, some participants, especially those from the “Third World,” were wearied and discouraged by the UN’s insistence on women’s fertility as the cause of the world’s poverty and problems. The final Plan of Action from Copenhagen establishes concrete dates for achieving universal access to “reproductive health care services” but does not include the proposed dates for the eradication of poverty. One delegate lamented: “the population programs would just mean families would have fewer children but still be poor.” I think he hit upon the core of the UN poverty program with the word “fewer”: the only way to eliminate poverty is to eliminate the poor. His remark may also be a prescient forecast of the agenda for the upcoming meeting in Beijing. With the UN’s wonderful sense of irony, where else to hold a conference on the rights of women but in the land of no rights? Where else to discuss the “reproductive rights of couples” but in the land of forced abortion? I’m sorry, I won’t be there. I’m having a baby.


  • Blanca Reilly

    Blanca Reilly is vice-president of International affairs for The National Institute of Womanhood.

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