We can hardly believe it as we hear how the negotiations on the Agreed Conclusions are unfolding behind closed doors: there is a big debate on the inclusion of the word ‘gender’ in the document. Whether it is about gender equality, gender mainstreaming or the importance of gender studies: when gender is mentioned, the African Group (unclear which countries) seems to team up with the Holy See (that is not even a member state but only has observer status) to advocate for removing it altogether.
Why would anyone want to take gender out?
These conservative delegates have argued that there is no agreed definition, and that any definition provided they would not agree on anyway.
What then do they propose?
Replacement of ‘gender’ with words like ‘women and men’, ‘children’ and ‘the family’, or the deletion of the word gender altogether.
Why is that not a good development?
This would take us back to a focus on ‘sex’: women and men as biologically different and therefore with fundamentally different characteristics and qualities. What the Holy See has so eloquently called the recognition of the ‘female genius’ (they never gave a definition for that, but one can only assume it refers to something like the qualities that are inherently feminine, such as caretaking roles in the family).
How does one simple word like ‘gender’ make any difference?
That has to do with everything that the word gender stands for. The following definition of gender derived from the Beijing Platform for Action and articulated by the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI) and the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW) now a part of UN-WOMEN, make it very clear:
[Gender] refers to the attributes and opportunities associated with being male and female and the relationships between women and men and girls and boys, as well as the relationships between women and those between men. These attributes, opportunities and relationships are socially constructed and are learned through socialization processes. They are context-specific and changeable. Gender determines what is expected, allowed and valued in a women or a man in a given context. In most societies there are differences and inequalities between women and men in responsibilities assigned, activities undertaken, access to and control over resources, as well as decision-making opportunities. Gender is part of the broader socio-cultural context. Other important criteria for socio-cultural analysis include class, race, poverty level, ethnic group and age.
Beijing Platform and Agreement for Action
To place this whole discussion in a historical perspective: more than 16 years ago, in 1995 (the same year that OJ Simpson was found NOT guilty and just three years after the Holy See finally admitted Galileo was right to state that the Earth rotates around the Sun, THAT’S how long ago!) the Beijing Platform and Agreement for Action was adopted by 197 governments at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. The Platform for Action is a broad-based agenda for promoting and protecting women’s human rights worldwide, which establishes the principle of shared power and responsibility between women and men in all arenas. The Beijing Declaration continues to be the global policy framework for gender equality, women’s human rights and the empowerment of women and girls. Most of all, the context of the declaration is very clear: it is about equality between WOMEN and MEN, nothing more and certainly nothing less.
Gender in jeopardy
Instead of focusing on the issues that future generations will face, the Holy See is making words like ‘gender’ (which has been defined by the feminist movement of the last century) sound controversial. This is a strategy being used in relation to other terms, such as ‘sexual and reproductive health’ and ‘maternal mortality’. Instead of finding language that helps us define the new challenges and ideas of the future, we are losing language that we have already developed.
But there is reason for optimism. While we are sitting here as young change makers supporting our delegations in the conference room, a supporter from the Holy See comes to offer us pure heart-shaped chocolates. We know that in the 1600s, chocolate was considered sinful and condemned by the Catholic Church. We are pleased to see that attitudes in the church have taken a 180 degree turn. Hopefully it won’t take another 400 years for the Holy See to endorse gender equality.