This piece originally appeared on Open Democracy on March 25, 2017.
The conference room in the UN Church Center, New York, hummed with conversation. Like many of the events that had taken place over the last week and a half, women from around the world were gathered as part of the Commission on the Status of Women. But, the forum event hosted by the Worldwide Organization for Women on Tuesday was unlike almost all others: many speakers focused on condemning comprehensive sexuality education, a key policy of the UN long-advocated by the CSW.
WOW was founded in 1977 with the motto: Faith, Family, Sovereignty. Their 14 Principles highlight traditional gender roles, the sanctity of life beginning at conception, and the “natural family.” Their stances on comprehensive sexual education, abortion, and LGBT issues tend towards the conservative, and they have not hesitated to vocally resist and condemn efforts the United Nations has made to address these issues.
WOW is not alone: conservative groups such as Center for Family and Human Rights (C-Fam) and The Heritage Foundation have acted similarly. WOW’s concerns, and indeed even their motto, are reflected in a 2001 Heritage Foundation report: “How U.N. Conventions on Women’s and Children’s Rights Undermine Family, Religion, and Sovereignty.” Both C-Fam and The Heritage Foundation were included in the US’s official delegation to the CSW, and their influence on negotiations has never been higher.
Yet WOW has worked in concert with other NGOs and the CSW in the past to sponsor and co-author statements on rural education, mental health, and gender-based violence. In recent years, however, WOW has not contributed to any NGO statements to the CSW, instead focusing on events promoting their views on the “natural family” and motherhood. There is considerable room for collaboration and success on issues such as prevention of sexual violence against children and domestic and care work—both key focuses for the organization this year. But addressing WOW’s ideological concerns would roll back hard-won advances in women’s rights around the world.
Amaka Ada Akudinobi, an active leader in WOW Africa, spoke on the state of sexual violence in Nigeria, highlighting persistent issues of child marriage, abduction, and rape, and the key role of the family. This aligns with the values and aims of the CSW and UN both. The importance of family to preventing or recognizing the signs of abuse was also stressed by Cecilia Anicama, a Programme Specialist on Violence against Children, during last year’s CSW. And Special Representative to the UN Secretary General on Violence against Children Marta Santos Pais herself placed protection of children from violence at the forefront of the Human Rights Council session earlier this month.
There continues to be room for meaningful collaboration between conservative groups like WOW and the UN on issues of sexual violence, but this is not the case when it comes to Comprehensive Sexual Education. CSE has been central to United Nations efforts since the UN Programme on HIV/AIDS, UN Population Fund, UNICEF, and World Health Organization published the first global guidance on sexuality education in 2009. Today, it is integral to UNESCO’s strategy on HIV/AIDS, and is implemented by UNFPA with the help of local governments around the world. CSE “enables young people to protect their health, well-being and dignity,” UNFPA writes on their website. “And because these programmes are based on human rights principles, they advance gender equality and the rights and empowerment of young people.”
Speakers during WOW’s forum event were far from supportive of these programs. “We are not against sex education,” said Sharon Slater, president of Family Watch International. “But this goes way beyond sex education… its an assault on our children: on their health, on their innocence.”
During the event, Slater screened an excerpt of “The War on Children,” a video produced by Family Watch International about CSE and what they term the “sexualization of children.” It highlighted the CSE’s “obsessive focus on abortion;” discussion of gender identity, claiming it leads to “gender confusion” and amounts to “mental molestation;” and Planned Parenthood’s goal of “hooking children on sex” because it “is a multi-billion-dollar industry for Planned Parenthood.”
The FWI film contained multiple inaccurate or misleading statements. While it repeatedly condemned the inclusion of speaking with children between the ages of two and six about masturbation as an “assault on their innocence,” multiple pediatric associations have established that it is healthy and normal for children around this age to discover and practice masturbation on their own. The film also claimed that abstinence-only or -focused education is as effective as CSE. However, research has found that teens who received CSE as compared to abstinence-only education start having sex later, have less sex and fewer partners, are more likely to use protection, and are less likely to become pregnant or contract a sexually transmitted infection.
Understanding WOW’s opposition to CSE requires recognizing one of the biggest threats they see to children: “moral grooming.” Yvonne Averett, vice president of WOW, identified “moral grooming,” as opposed to that done by sexual predators, as the most common form children are exposed to online. A slide during her presentation indirectly defined ‘moral grooming’ as exposure to “ideas that conflict with religious and family values.” It is this exposure that underlies many of the critiques WOW has of CSE, namely its inclusion of abortion, same-sex relationships, and exploration of gender identity. The education on these issues is seen as partisan and contrary to the values central to the cultural and religious beliefs of WOW and its members.
It is on these issues that CSW and WOW, with the support of other conservative organizations and governments, have typically differed. The 61st session of the CSW has focused on women’s economic empowerment. WOW continues to champion traditional gender roles: “WOW knows that motherhood is the most important occupation and provides the most for world peace and economic global sustainability than any other occupation a woman can engage in,” said Nicholeen Peck, president of WOW. “When a mother sees her role of mother as the most significant role in her life, then she is more happy and her children are more happy.” While CSW has, for the first time, included language on sexual orientation and gender identity in the agreed conclusions, WOW’s centering of the “natural family” stands inherently opposed to what they regard as LGBT “lifestyles.”
Reconciling these views are increasingly difficult and, for individuals on both sides, undesirable. The question remains: Is there room and reason to work together? On some issues, the answer appears to be yes. The inclusion of care and domestic work performed in the home in measures of GDP is a win for both WOW and the CSW this session, with the current draft stating that laws and policies should recognize “that work of the home, including unpaid care and domestic work, generates key human, social, and moral capital essential for sustainable development.” Yet conservative organizations are influencing language: well-established and widely-accepted references to sexual and reproductive health services are under threat this year because of their association with abortion services.
The CSW does not need a unified front, even though it presents ‘agreed conclusions’ at the end of the meeting. Some issues will be left unaddressed far longer than their advocates would like; others will be fought against by those who see them as regressive or damaging. Norms and values shift and change as the push for fuller, more comprehensive protections and rights persists. Akudinobi, in reference to combatting female genital mutilation, said something applicable in many struggles for human rights: “How do you do that to a child? All in the name of culture? Maybe it was once our culture, for we all know that culture is not static. Culture was created by all of us, the community, and it’s time we stood up against it.”