In March each year the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), a global intergovernmental body of the UN Economic and Social Council, meets in New York to review the progress of women’s rights globally. The planning and review sessions are attended by representatives of UN states and civil society who arrive at joint conclusions about the nature and scope of future commitment to gender-related concerns.
The Coalition of African Lesbians, a pan-African feminist organisation based in South Africa, has been observing these sessions and issued a statement on Wednesday that it is “dismayed and outraged at the rapid jettisoning of protections and rights guaranteed (in) South African law, as the South African delegation appears ready to sacrifice a broad range of rights and protections, and sexual and reproductive health rights specifically, in its zeal to stand alongside the Africa Group”.
South African ministers participating at the CSW are Minister of Small Business Development Lindiwe Zulu, Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant, Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa, Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini and Minister in the Presidency responsible for Women, Susan Shabangu.
The government announced that the South African government delegation was attending the CSW in “an important year” for South Africa which marked “three important milestones” – the 20th anniversary of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 40th anniversary of the Soweto Youth Uprising and the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Women’s March.
However, CAL Advocacy Manager Carrie Shelver said that despite disagreement among members, the South African delegation has refused to break from the Africa Group.
“The Agreed Conclusions still has some progressive language on gender and sexuality and other human rights issues, but these are under attack from various conservative groups, including the Africa Group,” said Shelver.
She said that while there were advances in access to rights related to women and gender nonconforming people, there was an increasingly hostile context which sought to entrench the idea of women as property of their fathers, brothers and husbands.
“The Africa Group has categorically refused to address any ‘controversial issues’ concerning sexual orientation or sexuality in the Agreed Conclusions, a position that is in direct and flagrant contravention of the constitutional protection offered on the grounds of sexual orientation in South Africa,” said Shelver.
Between 3 and 5 March this year, two years after promising to do so, the government hosted the LBGTI Africa Regional Summit, the first ever on the continent.
The summit was opened by Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Michael Masutha, who told delegates that while the world “still has a long way to go in achieving substantive equality, the fact that sexual orientation, gender identity and expression issues are the topic of this global conversation is a progressive step. Keeping these issues on the global agenda means we must enhance efforts to raise awareness, build networks and strengthen collaborations and partnerships as well as endeavour to act as catalysts for positive policy and legislation.”
The position being taken by the Ministry of Women at the CSW was hypocritical and contradictory, said Shelver, adding that the government was backtracking on already established commitments.
It also “flew in the face” of previous resolutions South Africa had tabled at the Human Rights Council and at the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.
CAL noted “with deep concern” several issues including that states were seeking to weaken or delete references to sexual and reproductive health and rights.
“Twenty years’ worth of agreements were now at risk because of the Africa Group’s refusal to accept the word ‘sexuality’ in the Agreed Conclusions.”
Also prompting concern was the continued limitation of women’s right to access healthcare services, specifically in relation to sexual and reproductive health which contradicted “not only the South African government’s previously agreed-upon obligations but also represents an attack on fundamental human rights”.
The Africa Group was also promulgating a narrow definition of “the family” which denied diverse forms of family and which would specifically target the rights of people in same-sex relationships.
“States are refusing to even mention that many people all over the world, including in Africa, experience violence and discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender expression and identity. This denial of recognition ‘invisibilises’ the presence of vibrant social movements and also denies the human rights violations that millions of people face.”
Over and above this, said Shelver, states were seeking to limit the kinds of civil society groups that are mentioned and validated in the negotiations, including feminist, LGBTI rights, women’s rights and human rights groups, trade unionists and women’s human rights defenders.
“The Coalition of African Lesbians is dismayed and outraged at what is now clearly South Africa’s willingness to trade women’s rights and to ignore its own domestic legislation… (this) undermines its role in international forums and also raises grave concerns about its commitment to human rights.” DM
Photo: South Africans participate in the Joburg Gay Pride parade in Johannesburg, South Africa, 01 October 2011 EPA/JON HRUSA.
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