The annual women’s conference at the United Nations may have encountered severe weather on its second day, when a blizzard swept through the region and events had to be canceled at the UN, but the real storm originated with the actions of the host country, the United States.
Indeed, the role that the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, took at the conference — minimal and guarded — symbolized how much the US has turned away from providing strong support for women’s equal rights and moved toward restricting those opportunities.
The last three ambassadors from the US to the UN, all of whom have been women, participated in the annual Commission on the Status of Women in different ways. (This year’s theme was the gender-wage gap and unpaid care work.) During her tenure as ambassador, from 2009 to 2013, Susan Rice spoke at the event several times while the US State Department broadcast her participation and attendance on social media.
Rice’s successor, Samantha Power, also spoke at the conference and participated in side panels during her tenure as ambassador from 2013 to 2017. Power tweeted on issues regarding women’s and human rights during the conference as well. Other members of the US mission to the UN also participated: at the time there was even a US ambassador at large dedicated to global women’s issues, Melanne Verveer (who now heads the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security).
Haley spoke once at the official UN Commission meeting and did not engage in any of the 290-plus side events held at the conference, which ran from March 13-24 in New York. Her brief speech touched on concepts of human rights for women, beginning with, “We want to make sure that our governments support girls and support women so that they always feel like that can show the power of their voice and be free to act accordingly.”
In her next sentence, Haley reverted to a message she has laced throughout her speeches at the UN — expressing what the US will tolerate and what it will not. “We should encourage every country to support these basic rights, and we should help them in any way we can. But we should also call out any country that is not supporting these basic rights and let them know that we will not stand for it.”
In other words, as she said on her first day as ambassador, she was “taking names.”
Haley did not use the women’s conference, via hashtags or other social media means, to widen the distribution of her statement. She did tweet about her music tastes, the NCAA women’s basketball tournament and an inspiration quote.
On background, a US mission official who works on women’s rights said that directions on the overall approach to the UN conference from the State Department were almost nonexistent this year, as the agency was understaffed and President Trump had just announced proposed budget cuts. State Department staff members, including those working at the US mission, didn’t know if they would even have jobs.
Equally significant, the US usually sponsors two to three side events at the conference; this year it hosted one. The event, on indigenous women, was originally planned by Mexico and Canada, who invited the US to join as a sponsor.
Since taking office, the Trump administration has proposed two executive orders barring travel and immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and Africa. Though the bans have been rescinded, they hurt attendance at the conference, a fact that the UN has avoided discussing in detail.
None of the countries listed in the first executive order (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen) or the second (same countries, except Iraq) sent civil-society delegations to the CSW, as it’s called. Other nationals from countries like Bangladesh and Nepal were also barred without explanation, according to Wo=Men, a Dutch-based feminist network.
As a result of the first Trump edict, issued on Jan. 27, a handful of feminist groups boycotted the conference in solidarity with women from countries listed in the bans, including the world’s oldest women’s rights group, the Womens International League for Peace and Freedom.
The US also disrupted the conference early on through its choice of official delegates — two conservative groups, the Center for Family and Human Rights (C-Fam) and the Heritage Foundation. A US mission official who met with civil-society organizations during the conference justified the designation of Heritage and C-Fam as a way to show a “diversity” of opinions. When questioned about the similar “pro-life,” anti-choice agenda of both groups, the US official repeated her “diversity” language.
The Heritage Foundation, which declined to comment on its participation for this article, has published papers critical of the UN, such as “In Bed with Radical Feminists: The UN’s Misguided Women’s Agenda” and “LGBT Groups Seek to Entrench Agenda at the UN.”
The two groups drew heavy media coverage to the women’s conference, which rarely enjoys much visibility in major news sites. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s classification of C-Fam as an antigay “hate” group heated up the controversy. C-Fam and Heritage have participated in the conference for decades but never in an official government capacity.
For Susan Yoshihara, a senior vice president of research at C-Fam, the negative reaction by some media and feminist groups at the conference was mere “name-calling.”
“Because marriage has been redefined legally in the US, there’s a friction between that and what international law says, which creates tension with American groups that have moved on to what the legal definition is here,” Yoshihara said in an interview with PassBlue.
She added that the Southern Poverty Law Center has been discredited for its unsubstantiated name-calling, applying labels of “hate groups to anyone who disagrees with a very particular view of sexuality.”
The Heritage Foundation and C-Fam both present what is called a “family-first agenda,” centered on traditional family roles and mostly originalist interpretations of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, especially Article 16, which reads, “(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.”
“I think things got heated this year because so much has changed,” Yoshihara said. “For the first time in the last eight years, we have a president who is more likely to be pro-life and pro-family in his appointments.”
In one of his first acts as president, Trump reinstated the global gag rule, a measure supported by conservative and religious groups that bans all official American aid to global organizations that provide abortions or information about the procedure.
When the US delegation was announced on March 15, two days into the conference, social media blew up, lambasting the two groups’ designation. During the briefing with civil-society participants at the US mission, tempers flared, with one delegate berating the C-Fam representative in the room.
The extreme range of agendas filling the conference and the clash of ideologies was far more noticeable at panel events and in the lounges of the UN than in the past. A French-led program, titled simply, “Abortion,” stood out for its boldness. It was well attended, with people cramped on the floor.
A Canadian doctor, attending the conference to advocate against abortion, unwittingly approached Lakshmi Puri, the deputy executive director of UN Women, in a crowded UN lounge. Even after self-introductions were done, the Canadian stressed the harmful effects of abortion, citing “over 140 studies and reports.”
Puri countered by citing the decrease in maternal-death rates experienced in countries with access to family planning and the increase in women’s economic participation in countries with progressive family planning. Studies from the National Women’s Law Center and the Guttmacher Institute have shown that women who can access effective family planning are more likely to stay in their jobs longer and experience greater professional movement.
Eventually, the Canadian doctor and Puri agreed to disagree, missing, as Puri observed afterwards, a chance to connect on the fact that at heart, they both wanted better health care for women globally.
Lynne Hindman, a professor at Oregon State University, was also at the conference as a civil-society member. She marveled at the spectrum of agendas, from what she called the “ultraconservative” C-Fam to groups supporting the “very liberal” Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, or Cedaw. (The US remains one of seven UN countries that has not ratified the treaty.) Hindman attended the conference as part of the C-Fam delegation, representing the more moderate Foundation for Sustainable Families.
“To better understand the global issues facing women,” wrote Hindman via email, “there is value in understanding the multitude of perspectives and variables involved so we can help create, together, comprehensive solutions for the SDG’s.” [Sustainable development goals.]
On the last day of the conference, a final resolution was adopted. The Commission for the Status of Women, a UN body, recognized for the first time the role of the International Labor Organization in promoting the right of women to work and their rights at work and how critical these elements are for economic empowerment.
Traditional allies, like the European Union and the US, were split over the document, especially on abortion and reproductive rights. Europe, represented by Spain, said the document was restrictive. The envoy from Spain maintained that the “language in the resolution further reinforces the stereotypes and traditional role of women and girls.”
The US, however, criticized the document for not establishing a clear, internationally recognized distinction between abortion and reproductive rights.
Speaking at a side event, titled, “Women Wartime, Radicalization and Islamophobia From Iraq to America,” Zainab Salbi, a journalist who founded the Washington, D.C.-based group Women for Women International, presented the most direct route to equality.
“I’m convinced that the only one who can save me as a woman is myself,” said Salbi, who was born in Iraq in 1969. “I am the knight, and I am the horse, too. No one saves women but ourselves.”