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'Protection of the Family': What it means for human rights

AWID spoke to Neha Sood, Policy and Advocacy Officer at Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights and part of the Sexual Rights Initiative, to learn the basics about two recent UN Human Rights Council (HRC) resolutions on the protection of the family: “Protection of the Familyi, and “Protection of the family: contribution of the family to the realization of the right to an adequate standard of living for its members, particularly through its role in poverty eradication and achieving sustainable developmentii .

AWID: The Sexual Rights Initiative has engaged in advocacy at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) around the topic of the “protection of the family” over the past two years, including a recent submission to the OHCHR and a joint statement last year.

Can you tell us more regarding the significance of the two resolutions on “protection of the family”?

Neha Sood

Neha Sood (NS): I think the first thing to note is that this is not the first conservative initiative at the HRC. Before this there was the Russian initiative on “traditional values”, which tried to promote the notion that “traditional values” can help to protect and promote human rights. That initiative didn’t have as much traction as they hoped so we’ve seen that peter out and this new initiative come up over the past two and a half years.

Why is this significant? There’s a number of things motivating this initiative: opposition to the human rights framework as a whole; in some sense an opposition to “the West” and “Western values”; push-back against advances made by feminist activism and advocacy; and also opposition to a greater acceptance of sexual diversity and gender diversity. There’s a common notion that this is an anti-LGBT agenda. That’s true but it’s only one part of it. “Protection of the family” is also emerging from rising traditionalism, rising religious, and social conservatism.


AWID: What impact do you believe these resolutions, and series of actions, may have on human rights standards and on rights related to gender and sexuality more specifically?

NS: The motivation behind these resolutions is definitely to erode the advances that have been made and the standards that have been set. To give a recent example, we have seen attempts to weaken the treaty monitoring bodies by getting more and more conservative experts into these bodies.

However, the existing standards are very strong and it takes a lot to erode them. As civil society we have to monitor these conservative elements, but we also need to engage constructively with these bodies, and connect with the progressive people in these spaces who are working to advance human rights standards. If we remain vigilant then we’re in a strong position.


AWID: The July 2015 resolution, Protection of the family, states that, “the family plays a crucial role in the preservation of cultural identity, traditions, morals, heritage and the values system of society.” You have highlighted the dangers engendered in such an approach. Can you elaborate?

NS: This is one of the very insidious parts of the resolution. As a whole this initiative tries to prioritize “the family” over obligations to respect, protect and fulfill individual human rights. The language of the resolution glosses over a lot of issues.

Firstly, we see that there isn’t much of an acknowledgement of the human rights violations that take place within families. Rather, there’s rhetoric around how families are crucial in preserving all cultural identity, traditions etc., and the tone is that these are wonderful things. By implying this, the resolution is neglecting that some traditions, customs, and social and cultural practices are harmful. Early, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, breast ironing, forced feeding, virginity testing, dowry—there’s a long list. All these things come to bear on women and girls, their bodies and their lives. The language of the resolution is trying to gloss over this reality.

The second thing about this part of the resolution is that it elevates those families that uphold traditions and “social” or “cultural” values over any other forms of families, particularly what you can call “non-traditional” families (although this term is in itself misleading). So it’s establishing this clear hierarchy, and we’ve heard it from state representatives in the negotiations; they say they only consider families to be those constituted by “a man, a woman and his children”.


AWID: Who are some of the actors supporting the “protection of the family” at the Human Rights Council and the UN otherwise?

NS: Russia, first of all, was leading the charge on “traditional values” and had to switch lanes to push the “protection of the family” initiative. There’s a core group of states that are running this, which includes states like Egypt, Qatar, Bangladesh, Belarus, Saudi Arabia, China. Then there are some of the more moderate states like El Salvador, Tunisia, Cote D’Ivoire.

Both Sierra Leone and Namibia withdrew from the core group when this resolution took on a more restrictive form. This highlights the fact that not all states that come to this initiative do so with the motivations we discussed earlier: religious and social conservatism, trying to push back on human rights issues relating to gender and sexuality. There are a number of other states that are somewhat on board with the idea that families need to be protected and support this initiative, but they may not be supporting the initiative with a very restrictive or conservative viewpoint.

There’s also a number of NGOs that are driving this initiative and supporting the states involved. This includes a number of Evangelical or other Christian groups: Family Watch International, C-FAM [Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute], ADF [Alliance Defending Freedom]. These are very religiously conservative groups that are anti-abortion and anti-sexual diversity, they’re opposed to a number of rights related to gender and sexuality. This has been in their agenda for several years and they have now consorted with states to push this initiative at the HRC.


AWID: Can you explain further why moderate states would get involved in the “protection of the family” initiative? Is there any way to gain back ground with them?

NS: Governments don’t want to be seen as being “against” the family. In some instances states don’t know or understand the nuances of what the “protection of the family” initiative really represents. So it’s really important to engage in discussion with governments, to point out the problems with this initiative. It’s important to point out who it’s excluding, what is implicit in the initiative in terms of what it’s elevating, prioritizing, and neglecting. Then governments can feel informed and empowered enough to say: “We support families—we support all families and want to ensure that all people within families are having their human rights realized and protected, but we reject this initiative because it is flawed in all these different ways”.

These conversations need to happen so that states feel comfortable taking these positions, and feel strong enough in them that they can’t be accused by those within their countries—the media, religious leaders, religious NGOs—of being “against the family”.


AWID: This year’s HRC resolution was entitled “Protection of the family: The contribution of the family to the realization of the right to adequate standard of living for its members particularly through its role in poverty eradication and achieving sustainable development”. What connections, if any, do you believe “protection of the family” has with a human-rights approach to sustainable development?

NS: Let’s start by thinking about a rights based approach to sustainable development: it’s about governments taking responsibility for their obligations to truly respect, protect, and fulfill human rights and have rights-based policies and programs in place to achieve sustainable development. That’s what’s desirable, that’s what will work in the long term.

The discourse on “Protection of the family” has many inconsistencies and incompatibilities with that approach, so I really can’t see any strong connections. “Protection of the Family” and developing family-centred policies contain an intention to formulate policies that incentivize family formation, incentivize certain people having more kids and others having fewer, to fit in with a certain vision of what society should look like. Those behind these efforts want to support some kinds of families, “traditional families”, and not others. All of these motivations are completely inconsistent with a rights-based approach in general and a rights-based approach to sustainable development in particular.


AWID: Overall, do you believe the broader feminist movement should be concerned about these moves at the Human Rights Council, and if so what can women’s rights activists working at the international and at the national level do?

NS: Yes, I do think the feminist movement should be concerned. The international human rights framework is crucial for advancing feminist objectives and sexual rights issues within countries, so regional and international human rights systems are really important to engage with.

At the same time, feminist movements and women’s rights and sexual rights organizations are not as well supported and funded as they should be. So, for those many feminist groups that know that these mechanisms are important to engage with, all they need is adequate support to do that. There needs to be more support from donors for this.

For any feminists to whom that connection is not yet obvious, I’d say to them that we need to be concerned about what’s happening at the HRC, at the UPR (Universal Periodic Review), in the work of the treaty monitoring bodies. We need to know what our governments are saying in response to the reports of UN special procedures. We need to know if our governments are bringing about resolutions like the one on “Protection of the family”, or if they are at the UN vociferously opposing sexuality education. It’s really important for feminist movements to know about these developments and to engage with our states—we must show them we’re watching!

Sometimes states’ positions are informed by misconceptions, by conservative elements spreading misinformation about sex education, abortion, about sexual and gender diversity. Feminists can engage constructively to help address misconceptions and fears, and empower states to take stronger positions within these processes, which are in turn important because they can be used to further discussions at the domestic level. In that sense, it’s cyclical and can be very advantageous to feminist movements.


AWID: Looking forward with regard to the “Protection of the Family” campaign and discourse, what steps should the feminist movement take right now?

NS: Firstly, we need to be vigilant in all spaces. The actors who are driving this agenda are everywhere and are trying to bring in these traditional and conservative notions in every place possible. To give one example, I recently learned that in the member states consultation on the current draft global plan of action for how health systems can respond to violence against women, girls, and children, there are proposals being made on the role of the family in protecting women against violence, at the same time as attempts to remove references to intimate partner violence. There are these efforts happening in a range of different spaces and feminists need to be aware.

Secondly, my vision for the HRC and the role of feminist movements would be for us to make it really clear how flawed this “protection of the family” framework is. From there it’s my hope that more and more states will start distancing themselves from it and it will die a natural death very soon. If we put in the effort together, I’m very hopeful that we can make this happen.