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Rio+20 Outcomes: What Was Agreed And What This Means For Women’s Rights Going Forward

FRIDAY FILE: As the dust settles on the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), it is important to look at what was agreed on paper and to ask: what do the conference outcomes mean for the future of the planet and for women’s rights in particular?

In this extended Friday File, AWID offers a women’s rights analysis of the most important Rio+20 outcomes and how they are shaping discussions in key development policy processes, including the post-2015 development agenda.

By Ana Ines Abelenda and Natalie Raaber[1]

The Rio+20 Conference, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 20-22 June 2012 was a twenty-year review and follow-up to the 1992 Earth Summit, bringing together governments, civil society, and the private sector to strengthen commitments on the three pillars of sustainable development (economic development, social development and environmental protection).

The two decades since the 1992 Earth Summit have been marked by ecological disasters and intense environmental degradation, particularly related to climate change and lack of access to resources such as clean water or land, and a rise in inequality at the global level and within most countries. Over the last twenty years, it has become evident that not only is environmental sustainability incompatible with the current development framework based primarily on economic growth, but that we are pushing the limits of the planet to breaking point.

Back to back with the official Rio+20 conference, Social movements, including women’s rights groups gathered at the People’s Summit for Social and Environmental Justice, to protest against green economy approaches and what they see as a new push for the commodification of Nature and the use of market tools to deal with the environmental crisis.[2]

Meanwhile, after intense negotiations at the official UN Rio+20 summit, governments finally agreed on a 53-page outcome document named “The Future We Want”. But despite the ambitious name, the document falls far short of the expectations of many civil society organizations (CSOs), particularly women’s rights organizations.

Women’s rights and gender equality

The Women’s Major Group (WMG),[3] the formal women’s platform for the summit, followed official negotiation processes at Rio+20. In their final statement, there was clear a sense of disappointment: “Two years of negotiations have culminated in a Rio+20 outcome that makes almost no progress for women’s rights and rights of future generations in sustainable development. The Women’s Major Group has worked around the clock to maintain women’s rights and commitments to gender equality that have already been agreed to, but gaining affirmation of those rights left no time for real progress and commitments to moving toward the future we need.”

A joint analysis paperprepared by the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC), Realizing Sexual and Reproductive Justice (RESURJ), Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), and the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (YCSRR) echoes this discontent. For them, the Rio+20 outcomes “fell short of making any real progress and commitments for addressing pressing and critical sustainable development needs. Against the backdrop of an unwieldy process, multiple and often competing agendas, it is unsurprising that the outcome lacked content and clarity”. Several other women’s rights organizations have also expressed their frustration with the Rio outcomes.[4]

Limited reference to women’s sexual and reproductive rights

Women’s rights organizations and gender equality advocates watched with dismay as previous agreements were watered down and gender language was weakened with every new draft of the Rio+20 outcome document. Most concerning was the deliberate omission of women’s sexual and reproductive rights from the final text, though “women’s sexual and reproductive health” language was maintained.

The omission was the result of pressure by the Holy See with support from conservative governments but also attributed to Brazil and other developing countries, including South Africa, Kenya and Indonesia, who traded off women’s reproductive rights for gains on other issues such as trade and financing.[5]

Despite this omission, and after long negotiations up to the last minute, the Health and Gender Equality sections of the Rio+20 outcome document reaffirm commitments to achieving the full implementation of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. This is an important, albeit limited, achievement given how much resistance different governments have shown to even introducing women’s rights and gender equality language and commitments in negotiations at Rio+20, but also in several other spaces, most recently at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) earlier this year.

Gender equality and women as crosscutting

While there was little progress on women’s rights, the Rio+20 outcome document recognizes gender equality as a crosscutting issue, with a dedicated special section[6] and a number of references in other thematic areas.

The thematic section on gender reaffirms “the vital role of women and the need for their full and equal participation and leadership in all areas of sustainable development” and supports “the removal of barriers” and “repeal of discriminatory laws” to create an enabling environment for women. In addition, governments commit to promote use of gender sensitive indicators and sex disaggregated data for development planning.

But concerns remain about weakened language that fails to adequately address systemic issues. For example, on access to natural resources, paragraph 240 recognizes “equal access to” land and inheritance, but the language is weaker than in previous versions of the outcome document that included explicit provisions on equal rights for women to inherit and own property and land. Paragraph 109 on “food security” recognizes the importance of rural women as “critical agents for enhancing food security and nutrition” including through traditional sustainable agricultural practices, however, the text fails to address the structural problems of a globalized agri-business that threatens these very practices. The section on employment and decent work recognizes “that informal unpaid work, performed mostly by women, contributes substantially to human well-being and sustainable development”,[7]but no mention is made of the unequal burden that women carry for sustaining the care economy.

There are also references to gender equality or women in the sections on education, oceans and seas, health, water and sanitation and energy, but references that appeared in previous drafts of the outcome document on the crucial thematic areas of climate change, forests, biodiversity, desertification, land degradation and drought, mountains, chemicals and waste, mining, sustainable consumption and production, sustainable tourism, and sustainable transport, did not make it to the final text.

Other important agreements reached at Rio+20

While for many the Rio+20 outcome document fell short of expectations, others say there are grounds for a more positive assessment.[8] The explicit reaffirmation of the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities[9] was confirmation of the Rio principles agreed to in 1992. This was an achievement for developing countries since it acknowledges that developed countries bear a greater responsibility for sustainable development because of the pressures their societies place on the global environment, and because of the technologies and financial resources they command.

On the green economy

On the road to Rio+20, many developed countries in the North and the private sector strongly promoted the ‘green economy’ as a solution to a range of environmental challenges. However critics argue that the concept of the green economy is largely “business as usual” but with a green face, and that it reproduces the model that prioritizes economic growth over the environment, which has led us to this critical situation in the first place.[10]

In the end, the final outcome document, dedicates a whole section (III) to the “green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication” but with few concrete commitments. While it affirms that green economy policies should “promote sustained and inclusive economic growth”,[11] it also names it as merely “one of the important tools available”[12] to governments.

The Women’s Major Group were critical that the final outcome document “does not clearly ensure free, prior and informed consent for all communities impacted by so called “green economy” investments” such as those which experience ongoing loss of access and control over natural resources as a result of private investments in mining, agro-fuel and forestry companies.

Strengthening the institutional framework

The final outcome document also agrees to strengthen the Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development,[13] including mandating the UN General Assembly (GA) in 2012 to work on a resolution that would strengthen the role of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) “as the leading global environmental authority” including through universal membership of its governing council and increased financing.[14]

In addition, governments will establish an intergovernmental High-Level Political Forum (HLP), replacing the Commission on Sustainable Development, which “shall follow up on the implementation of sustainable development”.[15] Negotiations will be conducted under the GA “to define the format and organizational aspects” with the aim of convening the first High-Level Forum in September 2013.

Disappointingly, the outcome document does not include any specific references to gender equality nor the need for gender balance in its institutional framework provisions even though it says it will “enhance the participation and effective engagement of civil society”.[16]

Financing for sustainable development[17]

Section VI A. of the Rio outcome document focuses on financing for the implementation of sustainable development, calling on countries to allocate resources in such a way that promotes sustainable development.[18] While financing commitments were generally weak and regressive,[19] there were a few “highlights”. The reaffirmation of the principles in the Monterrey Consensus (2002) and the Doha Declaration on Financing for Development (2008) is important because it underscores that discussion on financing for sustainable development must look at a range of financial flows - including domestic resource mobilization, trade, debt payments, procurement and foreign direct investment – in addition to aid and additional sources of financing and that policy coherence and consistency among the international monetary, financial and trading systems is critical to advance sustainable development.[20]

While developed countries refused to commit to new and additional financial resources for sustainable development, it was stressed that traditional mechanisms for financing, such as Official Development Assistance (ODA), should be scaled up, or at least reach previous commitments of 0.7% of GDP by 2015. The Rio outcome document stresses that innovative financing mechanisms, “should supplement and not be a substitute for traditional sources of financing.”[21]

The “interplay of development assistance with private investment” was positioned as “an opportunity to leverage private resource flows”.[22]This is worrisome as it is illustrates the focus on private financing mechanisms for development, once again giving a strong role to the private sector, rather than providing a development framing that puts state responsibility to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights at the core.

Overall, despite a few declarations of good intention, the Rio outcome document (particularly the finance section) fails to address the systemic nature of inequality and overlooks the fact that, the way in which the global monetary, finance and trading systems are presently set up in fact perpetuates inequality, including gender inequality.[23]While the outcome document acknowledges that “areas of insufficient progress” were “aggravated by multiple financial, economic, food and energy crises”,[24] it fails to place the analysis squarely in the framework of a systemic crisis of the current development model.

Implications for the post 2015 development agenda

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

One of the few concrete commitments made at the Rio+20 summit includes a plan to set up new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which “should be action oriented, concise and easy to communicate”.[25]Governments failed to agree on the themes of these goals, but they decided to establish an “open working group” of 30 representatives nominated by Member States from the five UN regional groups. The Open Working Group is expected to submit a report to the 68th session of the General Assembly in 2013 with a proposal for SDGs. Civil society and other stakeholders in the Major Groups are also coming together to discuss the outcomes of Rio+20 and address areas where no progress was made.[26]

In addition, the Rio+20 outcome document stressed that “the process needs to be coordinated and coherent [with the] post-2015 development agenda,” hinting at the link between the new SDGs and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set to expire in 2015. A lot of uncertainty still surrounds the SDGs process, in particular how “open” it will be to civil society inputs, what the role the private sector will have in the discussions, and how far it integrates not only the environmental issues but also economic and social goals. The Women’s Major Group has called for meaningful participation of women’s rights organizations in this process, to make sure that gender equality targets are reflected in the goals and gender specific indicators and tools for measuring progress are used.

Reflections for a future development agenda

The Rio+20 summit and other multilateral negotiations processes taking place at the UN and beyond hold important lessons for women’s rights organizing. The shifts in world geopolitics, including conflicting interests amongst new and old powers, together with stronger and more articulated conservative forces and a very strong presence of private sector actors (within and outside government delegations), are having an impact on the limited quality and vision of agreements reached at the UN to truly advance agendas that fully respond to human rights, justice, gender equality and environmental sustainability.

New world geopolitics is impacting the mechanisms and procedures of negotiation. In some instances, they are generating a lack of transparency by governments and significant obstacles to civil society participation. This was a clear reality at Rio+20 and challenges women’s rights and other civil society organizations to continue pushing the UN and other multilateral organizations to hold democratic and transparent negotiation processes, with clear and meaningful mechanisms of participation for CSO participation, in all their diversity.

A more significant rollback in women’s rights and gender equality came dangerously close to reality at Rio+20 and was only avoided by the crucial efforts of civil society organizations, particularly feminists and women’s rights groups.

The weak sustainable development commitments agreed in Rio+20 fall far short of responding to the urgent challenges that people and the planet are facing. As we move towards several other review processes of key agreements that marked the development agenda of the 1990’s and first decade of the millennium[27]it remains to be seen how a development agenda post-2015 will address these challenges.

These review processes, the SDGs and the building of the post-2015 development agenda, represent a significant opportunity. Women’s rights advocates, organizations and movements along with other civil society actors must ensure that there is no backlash; and that governments and other key actors are accountable and reaffirm previously agreed commitments, and take visionary new steps to significantly advance gender equality and women’s human rights, environmental sustainability and justice for all.

[1] With contributions from Lydia Alpízar and Alejandra Scampini.

[2] For more information on the People’s Summit from a feminist perspective, read the AWID Friday File People´s Summit At Rio+20: Movements Demand Structural Changes!, published 20 July 2012.

[3] The Women’s Major Group, comprised of over 200 organizations, is facilitated by three Organizing Partners: Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF), Voices of African Mothers (VAM), and Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN). It is supported by core members including, the International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy (ENERGIA), Global Forest Coalition, and Women’s Environment Development Organization (WEDO). For more information, visit:

[4] See, for example, the analysis by the Brazilian Women’s Articulation (AMB), the World March of Women (WMW) and the final declaration from the Women’s Global Territory at the People’s Summit.

[5] See an analysis by key sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHRs), youth and women’s organizations on government positions related to this.

[6] Paragraphs 236- 244 of the outcome document.

[7] Paragraph 153 of the outcome document.

[8] See, for example, the analysis by Martin Khor (South Centre) and by Chee Yoke Ling (Third World Network).

[9] Paragraph 15 of the outcome document.

[10] For a detailed analysis of the green economy see the Friday File: From Sustainable Development To Green Economy – What Does This Mean For Women? Published March 2012. See also the paper The Future We Want: A Feminist Perspective by Christa Wichterich published January 2012.

[11] Paragraph 58 d of the outcome document.

[12] Paragraph 56 of the outcome document.

[13] Paragraphs 75, 76 of the outcome document.

[14] Paragraph 88 of the outcome document.

[15] Paragraphs 84-86 of the outcome document.

[16] Paragraph 76h of the outcome document.

[17] This section is based on the analysis of the Rio+20 outcome document prepared by Natalie Raaber (AWID) as an input to AWID’s participation in the 2012 United Nations Development Cooperation Forum (UN-DCF) on 5-6 July 2012, New York.

[18] See Para 253 of the outcome document.

[19] See, for example, the analysis by Third World Network and this article by Inter Press Service.

[20] See the Monterrey Consensus.

[21] See Paragraph 267 of the outcome document.

[22] See Paragraph 260 of the outcome document.

[23] As noted by DAWN in their 22 June communiqué: Governments Gamble with Our Future. South Feminists Demand Responsible Action Now.

[24] See Paragraph 20 of the outcome document.

[25] Paragraphs 245 to 251 of the outcome document.

[26] See, for example, a meeting organized by UNEP in partnership with UN-DESA, Stakeholder Forum and The Green Economy Coalition, October 20-21 in New York.

[27] Such as the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA); the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Program of Action; the Durban Declaration and Programme of Actionto combat all forms of racism and racial discrimination; the Copenhagen World Summit for Social Development and its Program of Action; and the United Nations Millennium Declaration in 2000.