Rio +20: What Does It All Mean?
A month on and the much anticipated Rio +20 has sunk virtually without trace. Whilst the Brazilian hosts declared the talks a success , women’s organisations, farmers’, young people, indigenous peoples, environmental and climate change groups as well as trade unions see it as woefully inadequate, a shopping list of wants, rather than a call to action.
by George Aboud, BRIDGE Gender Convenor
As Hala Yousry, from the Women’s Group said in the final intervention ‘The Rio outcome document does not give us the urgently-needed means to address the massive challenges of our times.’
Rights, climate change and food security
The absence of women’s rights and gender equality in the outcome document is a key area of concern. The document fails to protect the sexual and reproductive rights of women, universally recognised as a fundamental human right. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Norwegian prime minister and chairwoman of the Brundtland commission, said that omitting a specific reference to reproductive rights represented 'a step backwards from previous agreements' on women's empowerment and gender equality.
At the first Earth summit, gender equality was explicitly highlighted, and the need to empower and listen to women was central to development and the environment. The linkage between sustainable development and reproductive rights was recognised in Agenda 21 and the subsequent 1994 International Conference on Population and Development Program of Action. The Rio Declaration also recognised women as key actors for environmental protection and poverty eradication as well as affirming their rights to participate in environmental and development policy decision making. However, these commitments seem to have evaporated.
The omission of women’s rights and gender equality issues calls into question not only the legitimacy of the outcome document but the validity of the term ‘sustainable development’. The notion of sustainable development is irrevocably tied to the enshrinement of sexual and reproductive rights and the ability for women to participate in decision-making and be leaders at local, national and international levels. The exclusion of these fundamental rights in a document which supposedly defines the 'future we want' therefore strips the term ‘sustainable development’ of its inherent meaning. As Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) reports: the ‘Rio+20 outcome document has relegated women’s rights and gender equality to the periphery without recognition of a wider structural analysis.’
Equally, the connection between climate change and gender is not recognised in the outcome document. As the Women’s Major Group Final Statement on the Outcomes of Rio+20 says: ‘This is unacceptable and contrary to women’s daily experiences. Women, children, indigenous peoples and the impoverished (the majority of whom are women) are the most heavily impacted by increasingly dire consequences of climate change. Equally critical is the huge potential contribution to climate mitigation and adaptation that could be made by women, yet their essential role in leading and participating in desperately needed climate solutions is not mentioned.’
The connection between gender and food security is also absent from the outcome document. Even though Oliver De Schutter (United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food) drew attention to references to the right to food in the outcome document, the document fails to address key underlying components of food insecurity by not explicitly addressing issues like gender equality. Women face many constraints when trying to secure food. They often have a lack of access to resources including seeds and technical information. In an FAO study of more than 20 countries Female Headed Households (FHH) have much smaller land holdings than Male Headed Households (MHH) and the land is often of a poorer quality. In some regions women also face social restrictions in public participation and mobility which adversely affects their ability to buy inputs, sell produce or hire labour. Within the household, in some countries, women in poor families may eat less so that men and children can eat better or because it is culturally accepted for men and boys to eat first.
The text and the language
The key disappointment in the negotiation was that, where any of these issues were mentioned in the outcome document, there was weakness in the language and lack of measurable indicators and timelines.
For example: ‘We underscore that women have a vital role to play in achieving sustainable development. We recognize the leadership role of women and we resolve to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment and to ensure their full and effective participation in sustainable development policies, programmes and decision-making at all levels.’
As Geoffrey Lean in the Telegraph reports: ‘The verbs tell the story. The word "encourage" appears 50 times, the phrase "we will" only five; "support" is used 99 times, "must" just three.’
There is an argument that the lack of commitment by Governments doesn’t matter because pledges and even legally binding agreements are broken (eg Canada’s failure to reduce its carbon emissions as agreed in the Kyoto Protocol). However commitment is not just about fulfilling obligations, it denotes both intent and an understanding of the seriousness of the issues at hand. By failing to resolutely tackle women’s rights, climate change and food insecurity, Rio +20 fails to acknowledge the urgency of these issues for both now and in the future.
So what next?
Whilst the outcome document left NGOS feeling they had attended a ‘hoax summit’, there was a glimmer of hope in the freshly launched Zero Hunger Challenge. This global initiative is underpinned by food sovereignty ideals which focus on eliminating hunger and ensuring that everyone everywhere has enough to eat while living within the earth’s limits. As Oxfam points ou,t though, this is welcome news, 'the involvement of small holder farmers, especially women, is critical to its success as they offer the greatest potential for feeding our growing population.'
Additionally, Rio +20 also established two new intergovernmental processes, one on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and another on Financial Mechanisms. A committee of 33 experts will be created for the SDG process. The Women’s Major Group is calling for a seat for civil society’s women’s organisations on the SDGs expert panel, as well as a gender balance in the composition of the panel. This is an important component in ensuring gender equality remains a priority and reaffirming women’s sexual and reproductive rights as a core human right.