A woman holds a sign representing different kind of families during a march to protest the World Congress of Families, in Verona, Italy. File picture: Antonio Calanni/AP
A woman holds a sign representing different kind of families during a march to protest the World Congress of Families, in Verona, Italy. File picture: Antonio Calanni/AP

SA must use its position to ensure women’s rights to bodily autonomy globally

By Lebogang Ramafoko Time of article published Apr 30, 2019

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The South African delegation at the United Nations Security Council, as directed by the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Lindiwe Sisulu, supported a German drafted resolution on sexual violence in conflict areas. The resolution sought to highlight a spectrum of violations of women’s rights in situations of war and conflict. These violations include rape and the denial of women’s rights to bodily autonomy, in particular sexual and reproductive health and rights. 

These rights, which are at the core of women’s rights to exercise control over their own bodies, are denied routinely in all parts of the world given the patriarchal nature of politics and societies. The denial of these rights are, however, exacerbated in situations of conflict where the rape of women is often is used a weapon of war. In line with constitutional mandates the South African delegation sought to support the original version of the resolution. 

The resolution was, however, diluted after threats by the United States (US) to veto the resolution if references to ‘sexual and reproductive health’ was not removed.  To appease the American delegation and to  avoid the use of the veto by the US , the references to sexual and reproductive health and rights were removed. In essence, this means that the United Nations Security Council would not affirm that women should have control over their bodies in times of war and by extension, times of peace.

The removal of the reference to women’s rights to bodily autonomy and integrity at the UNSC follows concerted efforts by the US delegation to roll-back women’s rights at other UN Forums over the last three years. What is alarming is that the advocacy traditionally done by christian right wing NGOs such as US based Family Watch International is now being done officially by the government of the United States. This means that a few right wing NGOs aligned to the alt-right and Tea Party platform of the Republican Party whose funding has been described as emanating from so-called ‘dark money’ now effectively have a veto at the apex body of global governance. 

The views of these right wing NGOs have now found traction with right-wing populist leaders across the world. Recently the President of Brazil met with US President Donald Trump. Following that meeting President Bolsanaro stated the following, “Brazil and the United States stand side by side in their efforts to share liberties and respect to traditional and family lifestyles, respect to God, our creator, against the gender ideology of the politically correct attitudes, and fake news”. This statement is in line with the views that emerged from the World Congress of Families that was recently hosted in Verona, Italy.

The central thrust of these so-called family friendly policies is an attack on what Trump and Bolsanaro refer to as ‘gender ideology’. For them gender ideology is as a result of the politics of feminism, including African feminism. The intent is to stigmatise feminism and the progressive ideologies that all people have the rights to bodily integrity and autonomy. This includes attacking women’s rights to abortion and the rights of the LGBTIQ community.

This right-wing attack on rights to bodily integrity and autonomy are being echoed by  some political parties in South Africa that are aligned to fundamentalist religious institutions. In fact, the DA too has been found to be ambivalent on the right to abortion if what appears to be a leaked script used by their call-centre agents is accurate. 

The positions taken by the South African delegations at the United Nations Security Council, at the Commissions on the Status of Women and Population and Development that are affirming of women’s rights are in line with a foreign affairs policy that must be constitutionally manifesting. Given its mandating environment, the South African government is expected to be robust in promoting women’s human rights and the rights of LGBTIQ communities at home and in the international arena.  

As civil society we also expect that DIRCO and the rest of government will ensure that the government’s domestic practice and foreign policy is aligned. The South African Bill of Rights guarantees all people the right to bodily integrity, including the right over reproduction and also access to sexual and reproductive health and rights. The constitution also assures that no person should be subjected to violence and discrimination because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. 

As CSOs we also expect that government will put in place measures to ensure that these rights are promoted and fulfilled at home and ensure that South Africa uses its role in the international arena to promote access to similar rights for women and members of the LGBTIQ community in other countries as well. This stance is part of government’s stated policy of progressive internationalism that seeks to promote a world order that promotes peace and equality within and between countries.  

* Lebogang Ramafoko is the CEO of Soul City.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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