The Women Deliver Conference, held since 2007, is one of the world’s largest gatherings on gender equity and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). This year, amidst a global backlash against the rights of women and people of diverse genders, the meeting was held for the first time in Africa in Rwanda between July 17-20, 2023. More than 6,300 women’s rights activists, feminists, and policymakers from 170 countries attended.
There were significant outcomes; most notably, the commitment of funding by Canada of more than $200 million in funding for new projects to support sexual health and reproductive areas, including family planning, comprehensive sexuality education, advocacy for SRHR, safe abortion and post-abortion care, and sexual and gender-based violence. There was also a timely boost for resourcing feminist movements and growing collective political influence from the local to multilateral spaces.
A monumental campaign called ` Closing the Gender Nutrition Gap: an Action Agenda for Women and Girls` was launched by over 40 organizations, to close the gender nutrition gap. Women and girls worldwide are twice as likely to suffer from malnutrition as men and boys. This campaign is an excellent opportunity for feminist movements to highlight the stark – and growing – inequalities in nutrition. Cultural norms, social roles, economic disparities, and discriminatory practices create and sustain this overlooked crisis.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) announced the Kigali Call to Action: United for Women and Girls’ Bodily Autonomy to accelerate investments and actions, with women-led organizations and the feminist movement at the center. UNFPA called for coordinated and collective action to achieve bodily autonomy, reproductive rights and gender equality for women and girls everywhere.
Importance of this moment
The meeting came a year after the US Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, a key abortion rights law, which is still sending vibrations and bringing a lot of uncertainty about women’s reproductive rights beyond the US. In Africa, for the last few years, conservative leaders have been restricting space and policy around women’s bodily autonomy, donors have restricted funding, and there’s fear among civil society organizations advocating for reproductive justice, including abortion.
There are intensified, well-organized attacks on the human rights of women and the LGBTQI+ community, especially in Africa. Women and LGBTQI+ are becoming increasingly unprotected in many African countries, subjected to waves of well-funded efforts by anti-rights actors that endanger lives.
Well-organized ‘anti-gender movements’ have been working to undermine women and LGBTQI+ rights for decades. This growing conservative, anti-gender narrative includes key influential policymakers, fundamentalist religious bodies, and some ‘progressive’ governments funding anti-LGBTQI+ backlash through bilateral relationships with religious civil society organizations, such as the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda.
These groups have popularized support for discriminatory and retrogressive legislation in developing countries, such as the 2023 Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda, which made ‘aggravated homosexuality’ punishable by death. As a result, ‘many Ugandans who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community are now living in fear for their lives.’
With the support of conservative civil society organizations that have access to major decision-making bodies, negotiations and forums, anti-rights entities from Africa and across the globe are co-opting human rights language and weakening or removing references to sexual and reproductive rights.
Beyond the financial backing, anti-rights and anti-gender actors have trained and helped representatives take over influential positions in governments, courts, and other institutions in many places to institutionalize anti-rights norms and practices in offices of influence.
Contradictions at Women Deliver 2023
Many feminist activists had hoped this year’s meeting to be a crucial rallying point, but that high was very quickly shot down by the presence of key advocates against the very rights this conference is intended to promote. Specifically, the participation of Hungary’s rightwing president, Katalina Novak, who addressed the opening ceremony, shocked many feminists and advocates.
As former Family Minister in the populist government of Viktor Orban, Novak has been a party to anti-LGBTQ laws and the tightening of abortion regulations in her country. Novak has also told women not to expect the same pay as men, while her government has outlawed adoption by unmarried couples and excluded LGBTQ couples from adopting children. Hungary has also refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention, designed to protect women from violence.
Much more to my discomfort was the number of people that applauded her speech in Kigali; whether it was about being in the presence of a president or sharing the values communicated, they cared little for the symbolism that their applause meant for women and LGBTQI rights in Africa.
Her speech was dismissive of teenage pregnancies in many global south countries, which is an insult to a region grappling with rates as high as 25%, twice the global average at 92 births per 1000 women. Her presence, and the opportunity given to her to speak, were not representative of the supposedly progressive audience gathered in support of all women in all their diversity and all their choices.
Novak also perpetuated harmful gender norms around women and their supposed reproductive responsibility to “choose motherhood”; and her appreciation for African women`s high birthing rates were concerning, especially with burdens associated with this, from high maternal deaths, high teenage pregnancy rates, high unmet need for contraceptives and gender-based violence in the form of forced unions, child marriages and restrictions on women’s bodily autonomy.
Reproductive autonomy includes the right to determine the number of children to have and the spacing of children, and that right can be to determine whether to have no children. The negative gender social norms we face in Africa and restrictive policies do not make this possible for many women. Her remarks were racially degrading about African women’s `reproductive responsibility`. Several feminists, human rights activists and advocates have outrightly called out Women Deliver for giving an audience to Novak in a space that is supposed to be safe.
Safe spaces and agency must be protected
We need to stay in control of our voice and demand accountability from entities that claim to be feminist at any point that they challenge the realization and enjoyment of our rights. Women Deliver, one of the largest gatherings on gender equality, should remain a place to challenge corrosive gender norms that sustain inequality and challenge restrictive, discriminatory, and oppressive norms.
Normalization is an instrument of power and plays a role in classification and hierarchization. In this case, platforms such as Women Deliver, normalizing anti-rights groups’ access to spaces of women and gender-diverse people to spread harmful rhetoric undermines their safety and their full humanity. Countering these anti-feminist, anti-democratic trends is everyone’s responsibility.
Platforms such as Women Deliver should be safe spaces for women to dialogue and call to account in all their diversity. There should be accountability for surrendering these spaces to anti-rights groups and advancing politics that endanger the progress and safety of gender-diverse people and women’s rights.
Yvonne Mpambara is a Ugandan feminist lawyer and Reproductive Justice Advocate.