Efforts to reinforce, advance, and operationalize policies to achieve gender equality at the international level have for years now come up against an increasingly diverse and coordinated coalition of ultra-conservative forces.
The 58th CSW on the theme of challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for women and girls was no exception, with a host of actors working to block progress and undermine rights. These included conservative NGOs, institutions such as the Holy See, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and sympathetic states such as Russia, Iran, Uganda, Qatar, Zambia and others.
A step forward has been achieved in the Agreed Conclusions, which included a paragraph supporting a stand-alone goal on gender equality in the post-2015 development agenda, a weakness in the MDGs that women’s rights activists and groups have been lobbying the UN to address in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While this recognition in the Outcomes is a significant gain, campaigning by conservative and fundamentalist forces has come to focus on a different stand-alone goal in the post-2015 agenda, a goal on “the family” (read: a heteronormative and patriarchal family).
This mobilization of the concept of the family follows on from previous efforts supported by certain states, including Russia and Egypt, to introduce a resolution on the protection of the family at the Human Rights Council. With the extremist U.S.-based NGO Family Watch International (FWI) formally launching its Goal on the Family campaign, we can expect lobbying to defend the “traditional family” to continue for years to come.
In the context of the last CSW, anti-rights coalitions supporting this goal struggled to include reference to “the family” (in the singular) as a contributor to sustainable development in the Agreed Conclusions. They successfully blocked efforts by rights-based groups seeking to expand the reference to emphasize the increasingly diverse nature of families, proposing such language as “various forms of family”. While state delegations negotiated over these and many other points of language and policy, FWI organized a side session sponsored by Belarus, Indonesia, Qatar and The Holy See entitled Women and Families as Drivers of Sustainable Development. FWI President Sharon Slater emphasized that laws, policies and programs have too often targeted individuals rather than families and that a measurable family-focussed target should be created in every area of the SDGs.
Since CSW58, at an Open Working Group on SDGs Meeting in New York, the push for a goal on the family has begun gaining momentum through the leadership of Belarus, who issued a statement advocating for the stand-alone goal. Pat Buckley from the European Life Network, who regularly comments on “the radical western sexual rights agenda” against “the more generally accepted societal norms for life and family issues” lauded Belarus’s initiative, stating “It is very rare at UN meetings that one hears any positive statements about the family, which is more often that not painted as being one of the abusers of women and children, however in what has to be a ground breaking statement Mr. Valentin Rybakov Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Belarus called for a ‘stand alone goal’ on the family. [sic]” A similar sentiment was echoed by Archbishop Francis A. Chullikatt, the Holy See’s Permanent Observer at the United Nations, who called the failure to recognize the role of the family as fundamental in addressing the structural causes of poverty as “highly irresponsible and… counter-productive”.
The message inherent in the religious right’s focus on “the family” is that conservative and extremist forces are the only ones who can legitimately define family. They speak as the defenders of the family (or indeed, of religion, culture, tradition, sovereignty, all being concepts they commonly mobilize) against an onslaught brought on by rights activists and feminists—who are often caricaturized as “extreme pro-abortionists” seeking to profit from provision of SRHR services, sexualize children, corrupt society and foment a culture of death. There is no recognition of the violence or inequalities perpetuated by rigid and narrow conceptualizations of gender roles or family, or acknowledgement that family forms are diverse and ever-shifting; rather, one type of family is positioned as the panacea for all social ills. In fact, these are simply incremental attempts to shift the emphasis away from individuals as rights-holders to the family as a unit deserving of human rights protection. Thus the challenge posed by fundamentalists is no small one; it is an attack on the very basis of the human rights system.
For an analysis of the 58th CSW focusing on the Agreed Conclusions, please refer to the AWID Friday File CSW-58: Too Much Time Spent Pushing Back
 The resolution was tabled by Bangladesh, Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco, Qatar, Russian Federation, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe. For more information, please click here.  Paragraph hh: Recognize the family as a contributor to sustainable development, including in the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals for women and girls, that gender equality and women’s empowerment improve the well-being of the family, and in this regard stress the need of elaborating and implementing family policies aimed at achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment and at enhancing the full participation of women in society;.