Conservative Nations Block UN Gender & Food Guidelines
Date: October 14, 2022
By Teresa Welsh
October 7, 2022 – Indonesia is leading a group of countries, including Russia and China, that oppose United Nations guidelines on gender and food systems, threatening to reverse progress on international gender equality.
The directives are being developed in the U.N. Committee on World Food Security, or CFS, a Rome-based body that operates on consensus — meaning an objection from any country can stonewall the entire process.
The document, known formally as the Voluntary Guidelines on Gender Equality and Women’s and Girls’ Empowerment, aims to “advance gender equality, women’s and girls’ rights, and women’s empowerment as part of their efforts to eradicate hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition.”
The dissenting nations objected to six phrases in the document, a U.N. official close to the negotiation process told Devex. They opposed “multiple intersecting forms of discrimination,” “sexual and gender-based violence,” “women and girls in all their diversity,” “sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights,” “sexual orientation,” “gender identity,” and “an intersectional approach to gender.” Phrases referencing the LGBTQ community were particularly contentious, the official said.
CFS hoped to reach agreement on the document so it could be formally adopted at next week’s plenary meeting, the body’s annual gathering in Rome.
Failure to reach consensus and pass the gender guidelines could make the Sustainable Development Goals — including ending hunger — harder to meet, the U.N. official said.
“Everybody knows that you cannot — you will not — reach global food security without addressing gender equality,” the official said, alluding to the fact that women are more vulnerable to food insecurity. “Despite telling the world they’re champions of gender in the G20, [Indonesia] meanwhile — the delegation in Rome — is completely destroying something of meaning for gender equality.”
Good faith efforts have been made by CFS and governments supportive of the gender language, including Canada and the United States, to accommodate the more conservative nations, the official said. The language used in the draft is similar to that already accepted by the opposing countries in other U.N. fora, and none of it falls outside the bounds of CFS’ mandate.
The Indonesian representative in Rome did not return multiple emailed requests for comment. Other countries opposing the gender guidelines include China, Russia, Egypt, Morocco, Malaysia, the Holy See, Sudan, and Cameroon.
A zero draft was agreed in July 2021, followed by regional and electronic consultations. Formal negotiations reached their conclusion in July this year, and only then did the group register their opposition. That raised questions as to why they waited until the eleventh hour to announce they did not want to continue negotiations. They rejected a compromise proposal led by the U.S.
“It was what we all considered a fair proposal to eliminate some of the sensitive terms, to reduce the number of times at least one of those terms was used, and it was basically to meet halfway. And Indonesia basically responded ‘nope, sorry we’re not going to meet halfway. We’re just going to sit on this and torpedo the process,’” the U.N. official said.
Agreement was reached on about 80% of the text, the person said, with the remainder “comprised of those six terms in multiple paragraphs.”
Magdalena Ackermann, co-facilitator of the Women and Gender Diversities’ Working Group of the Civil Society and Indigenous People’s Mechanism, said she was “surprised and concerned” when objections to the text were raised at the last minute.
“The UN has already advanced in other fora with language on gender diversities, also on sexual and reproductive health and rights, on intersectionality, on sexual and gender-based violence,” she said, noting that other U.N. bodies including the Commission on the Status of Women and the General Assembly have already agreed to texts including some of the phrases to which the opposition objected.
“This is why not referring to those would be taking a step backwards, but also it is a matter of policy coherence, of ensuring that … what is being developed in the CFS builds up on [what] has already been agreed in other fora,” she said.
In a statement posted to the CFS website, the objecting group said it found the text “imbalanced” and did not appropriately take into consideration the nations’ position.
“As we approach the final round of the negotiation, with great regret, we are not comfortable with the text and do not find the right conditions to continue the negotiations and come to an agreement on the text of the Voluntary Guidelines,” the group wrote, adding that consensus is unlikely.
Three days later, it reiterated the position, adding that it would not resume negotiations.
A U.S. official from the U.S. Mission to the U.N. Agencies in Rome said in a statement to Devex that the U.S. had pushed “very hard to include progressive language on gender, diversity, equity and inclusion.”
“We are very disappointed that a number of countries, after months of negotiations, have moved to block this report,” the official said. “At a time when food insecurity is skyrocketing, and it is affecting women and girls disproportionately, it is unconscionable that some members of the Committee on World Food Security are trying to stop progress on this issue.”
Extending the talks is challenging because they must be formally convened in Rome, which requires expensive language interpretation for delegations. The process has already cost $700,000 due to such expenses.
It’s not unusual for CFS negotiations to become thorny and they typically last multiple years. Past efforts have also presented challenges on achieving consensus, notably with voluntary guidelines on land tenure, and food systems and nutrition adopted last year.
UN Women worked with the CFS secretariat to shape the language of the guidelines. A UN Women official familiar with the gender negotiation process said it was “shocking” the way the opposition group raised its objections at the last minute.
“In these negotiations it is sometimes about incremental changes and incremental progress — and I use the word progress not as progressive versus anything else, just progress towards gender equality and women’s empowerment. We want to advance the language and minimally not go backward,” she said.
Gabriel Ferrero, European Union ambassador at large for global food security and the chair of CFS, said he would not give up trying to reach consensus on guidelines so they could be adopted. Next week’s plenary will include a session on empowering women and girls, during which supporters of the guidelines will push for the negotiation process to continue.
“I hope to be able to find some common ground,” Ferrero told Devex.