anti-rights

 

  • WOMEN’S RIGHTS: ‘Anti-rights groups are trying to take away our acquired rights’

    Teresa Fernandez ParedesAs part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks toTeresa Fernández Paredes, a lawyer specialising in International Public Law and one of Women's Link’s Managing Attorneys. With offices in Colombia, Kenya and Spain, Women's Link defends and promotes women's rights and seeks to create structural change through strategic litigation.

    What does Women's Link do, and what are its main areas of work?

    Women's Link is an international organisation that uses the law - most of us are lawyers - to promote structural social changes that advance the rights of women and girls, and especially of those in the most vulnerable positions, such as migrant women or women who find the exercise of their rights restricted due to their ethnicity, age or socioeconomic status, among other factors.

    We work from our headquarters in Madrid, Spain and have offices in Bogotá, Colombia and Nairobi, Kenya. We apply a gender and an intersectional analysis to the law in order to expand and improve the rights of women and girls. We work in some areas, such as sexual and reproductive rights, where we collide head-on with anti-rights groups. We also focus on human trafficking, and especially on the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation or domestic servitude and the violations of their rights suffered by women in migration or transitional justice contexts. We also focus on discrimination, as a cross-cutting issue. We use several strategies: in addition to strategic litigation, we conduct judicial training and produce publications, among other things.

    What are currently your main areas of work in Latin America?

    One of our main lines of work in Latin America is access to sexual and reproductive rights, broadly understood. In the context of the ongoing Venezuelan migration crisis, we are working on the link between migration and lack of access to these rights. We examine issues such as the effects of irregular migration status on the enjoyment of these rights, and the situation of border areas as spaces that are not ruled by law.

    Working in Venezuela has been a great challenge, given the country’s current situation. What we do, here and in all cases, is apply international legal standards to the local context. But it is important to bear in mind that generally speaking, law - and not just domestic legislation, but also international human rights law - is very centred on men. Over the years, norms and regulations have been developed around the image of the white man as a universal subject.

    Our approach to the law is to stretch it to accommodate the experiences of women, because within the human rights framework, women's issues are often left aside. In the context of Venezuela, we work a lot with the inter-American human rights system. For example, we recently requested a precautionary measure for a maternity clinic where many mothers and children had died. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued the precautionary measure, but in the current context it would seem difficult to implement it. However, it serves the purpose of drawing attention to the specific situation of women and girls. And all this work also helps encourage understanding why women leave Venezuela: what drives them, as women, to migrate; and what needs they have when they are in transit and when they arrive at their destination.

    In addition to working in Venezuela, several of our projects focus on ensuring that women’s lived experiences and voices are heard in the context of the peace process in Colombia. We do this mainly from our office in Bogotá, and always jointly with community organisations, so as to try to make heard the voices of people at the margins who are not reached by decision-makers.

    Over the past years anti-rights groups have been on the rise, in Latin America and beyond. Have you faced backlash from these groups in the course of your work?

    The context in which we work is strongly marked by the rise of anti-rights groups that say they are mobilising against what they call ‘gender ideology’. But this is not a new phenomenon: anti-rights groups have been busy building connections and expanding since the 1990s. They have a lot of money and there is one thing they do better than groups on the left: they are very effective in creating connections and coalitions among themselves; even when they work on different issues they are able to find common ground. For instance, all of them have coordinated to place the gender ideology theme on the table and raise it everywhere, as a result of which something that was not even a concept ended up as a global issue. They have managed to position this on the agenda, which is more difficult to do for groups located on the left, where there is more discussion around the issues and it is more difficult to coordinate and speak with one voice. That is why we still do not have a unique and conclusive response to the attacks we face in the name of gender ideology.

    Anti-rights groups are trying to take away our acquired rights. And they are doing it by using the same discourse that has been successfully used by human rights groups. They talk about human rights and they position themselves as victims. They even depict feminists as diabolical agents, giving feminism more power than you would think it has. Due to the fact that Women's Link is based in three regions, we can clearly see that the same strategies are being used in different places. These groups are using coordinated strategies, they have lots of money and they enjoy global support. As they use the language of human rights, they have increasing legal representation, and they have begun to occupy spaces in strategic forums, where decisions are made, including the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

    How can progressive civil society act to curb these advances?

    Faced with these attacks it is important to act quickly through the law. We must continue working to strengthen the human rights framework and shield rights against these attacks. We must design not just defensive strategies, but also proactive strategies to expand the human rights framework, or at least to take away some of the spaces in which anti-rights groups move.

    There are still unresolved discussions we need to work on, such as the tension between the freedom of expression and hate speech. Paradoxically, in order to spread their message anti-rights groups are leaning on one of the left’s favourite themes, the freedom of expression.

    However, if we want to create lasting social change we cannot remain in the realm of the law and the courts. What we need are cases that cause people to mobilise, generate public debate and produce real social change. In that sense I see positive developments, like the #MeToo movement and the so-called Green Tide in Argentina. That is, we are seeing two opposing processes: on the one hand, anti-rights groups are growing; on the other, strong mobilisation around these issues is happening from the ground up and with a strong youth component. Such was the case with the Green Tide, which created unprecedented mobilisation while a proposal to legalise abortion was being discussed in the Argentine Congress. No doubt the two processes are very likely connected, and one is a consequence of the other.

    These social movements are good reason for hope. In the face of attempts to cut back on acquired rights, there is a very active movement that says, look, this is an acquired right, you cannot take it away anymore. There is no going back: looking forward, you can only expand the rights framework, but you cannot diminish it.

    In addition to attacks from anti-rights groups, what other challenges do civil society promoting women’s rights face?

    For grassroots organisations, lack of resources can be a great limitation. And in contexts of great urgency, such as those of massive movements of people, we are presented with the challenge of how to coordinate our work with that of grassroots organisations.

    Women's Link is dedicated to identifying structural situations where women's rights are violated and to designing legal strategies to generate structural, transformative change. Meanwhile, grassroots organisations - for example, those in border areas between Colombia and Venezuela - are increasingly taking on, in conditions of urgency, functions that should be performed by the state. In these contexts, most of the response is coming from civil society organisations.

    These grassroots organisations are responding to a very serious situation, and the needs of the women they work with are very urgent, and yet all we can do at Women's Link is support them through strategic litigation, which usually takes a long time.

    Difficulties of working with scarce resources aside, it is vital to build relationships, connect and coordinate, because the potential contribution that Women's Link has to offer would be useless if it weren’t for the work that is being done by grassroots organisations and for the voices and support of women themselves.

     

    Get in touch with Women’s Link through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@womenslink on Twitter.

     

  • WOMEN’S RIGHTS: ‘Progressive civil society must claim for itself the defence of life’

    Maria Angelica Penas DefagoAs part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to María Angélica Peñas Defago, gender specialist, professor and researcher of Argentina’s National Research Council (CONICET) based at the National University of Córdoba, and co-author of the recentGlobal Philanthropy Project report, ‘Religious Conservatism on the Global Stage: Threats and Challenges for LGBTI Rights'.

    Do you think anti-rights groups have increased their activity in recent times?

    We should start by defining what we mean by ‘recent times’, how far back we need to go, and what specific context we are talking about, because for instance in Latin America the situation varies from country to country. In the case of Argentina, we have seen over time – and not only over the past year, when a bill allowing for the voluntary termination of pregnancies was being discussed in Congress – reactions against the progress achieved in claiming rights by women and LGBTQI people. While it is true that, in recent years, anti-rights groups have become more visible and coordinated, largely in response to advances achieved in the area of sexual and reproductive rights, they have been present for decades, always coercing our agendas. In Argentina, they have been actively litigating against any attempt to enact public policy on sexual and reproductive health or even remotely linked to these rights for at least 20 years. In the province of Córdoba, where I live, these efforts have been very successful in the lower courts, although rulings favourable to these groups were eventually overturned in the higher courts.

    With regard to street actions, strong reactions by these groups were already recorded in the past, including demonstrations throughout the country, for instance against equal marriage, which was approved in Argentina in 2010. The same groups marched once again against the legalisation of abortion in 2018. There has also been a renewed backlash against sex education in schools, a longstanding battle. Sex education was implemented through a 2006 law that is still being resisted. During the abortion debate, anti-rights groups pretended to promote sex education as an alternative to abortion, but after the bill on the voluntary termination of pregnancy was voted down by the Senate, they restarted their attacks against sex education.

    A reorganisation of the conservative camp is currently underway, and I think it is as a result of this that these groups have recently gained more visibility. Although new actors have indeed emerged within civil society, the central phenomenon in the current socio-political context is the reassertion that is taking place in the political and the economic spheres. This can be seen, for example, in the alliances reached in Colombia around the 2016 referendum on the peace process, as well as in Brazil, embodied in the 2018 election of President Jair Bolsonaro.

    During the campaign leading to the referendum in Colombia, the forces that rejected the agreement claimed that if ‘yes’ won, so-called 'gender ideology' would be imposed. In Brazil, fake news claiming that the Workers’ Party promoted paedophilia and would try to ‘convert’ children into homosexuals or transsexuals mushroomed during the election campaign.

    In other ways, the phenomenon is also seen in Argentina, where all the main actors opposed to the progressive agenda, and specifically to the sexual and reproductive rights agenda, have tended to converge.

    Do you think that these are purely reactive groups, whose raison d'être is to curb the progress of the progressive agenda?

    As far as I can tell, that is indeed the case. I have monitored congresses of so-called ‘pro-life’ groups and analysed the actions they have undertaken in regional and global spaces, and particularly in the Organization of American States and the United Nations, and it is readily apparent that they are losing ground regarding family formats and the assignment of sexual roles, and they are aware of it. These groups are reacting to what they perceive as a setback. Their reaction is being coordinated not only around the thematic agenda of sexual and reproductive rights, but also around a wider nationalist, neoliberal – and, in some cases, fascist – political and economic agenda.

    The Bolsonaro phenomenon is a good example of a reaction to a pluralistic agenda around sexual morality and sexual and reproductive rights. The advances of this pluralist agenda acted as a binding agent for a broader conservative political agenda. Within the framework of the reaction against progress achieved in sexual and reproductive rights, other actors are taking advantage to impose their own conservative agendas, for example around migration issues. There are some new actors at play, especially those joining from other fields – political, economic, religious – but many of the actors that are gaining greater visibility are the same as always, the difference being that they are now unifying agendas that used to run in parallel and in less coordinated ways.

    What tactics have these groups used to advance their agenda?

    Litigation against sexual and reproductive rights has been an important tool for more than three decades. In Argentina, these groups have litigated, among other things, against the administration of emergency contraception and to stop the implementation of protocols for non-punishable abortions. In Argentina, abortion has been legal since 1921 for cases of rape, unviability of the foetus, or danger to the woman’s life or health; however, these groups have tried to prevent timely and secure access to this right.

    For the part of civil society that works in the area of women's rights, these groups have always been there. But litigation is sometimes a quite silent affair and has possibly remained unnoticed by the wider civil society. Often, it all remained within the realm of the administration of justice and health services. This however did not prevent this strategy from having very strong effects, because judicial decisions regarding sexual and reproductive health tend to produce fears, doubts and paralysis among health providers, which are key agents for guaranteeing actual access to these rights.

    The presence of anti-rights groups is not news for feminist and LGBTQI groups, but it may very well be so for other sectors of civil society, including human rights organisations, which in recent times have seen them acting more intensely through the occupation of street space and the creation of partisan political alliances, the two key arenas for political struggle in contemporary democracies. These groups are trying to appropriate public space, showcasing themselves as the majority, and in this way they are gaining public visibility. In this area, one of their most successful strategies has involved the use of coordinated messages and symbols. The ‘Don’t mess with my children’ campaign, for example, has used the same phrases and slogans, and even the same symbols and colours, not only throughout Latin America, but also well beyond. We have seen it in Eastern Europe, in Italy, in Spain. These groups are intensively using social media so that their strategies and symbols travel, are shared and ultimately reach us repeatedly from various latitudes.

    If anti-rights positions have gained more visibility, it is because the actors that promote them, mostly faith-based, have gained a prominence in the public space that they did not have 20 years ago. Evangelical churches, like the Catholic Church, are plural and heterogeneous. But in much of Latin America, the political processes of resistance to sexual and reproductive rights have been led by very conservative evangelical churches, sometimes in alliance with the higher ranks of the Catholic Church, and in other cases dissenting or even opposing them.

    Unlike litigation, the strategy of occupying public space requires support in large numbers. Do you think these groups are gaining in popularity?

    The socio-political phenomenon fuelled by these groups is significant. It is not simply about campaigns and slogans; they are deeply embedded at the grassroots level. To understand what is happening in the religious arena and in terms of resistance against progress in sexual and reproductive rights, it is necessary to take into account the socio-economic context and the way that these churches are operating at the grassroots, in strong connection with the populations that they mobilise.

    In Argentina, a very politically mobilised society, street mobilisation has been widely used by these groups, so it is nothing new. What is new is the massive character of their mobilisations. These groups were already mobilising 30 years ago, or maybe even earlier, but there was no social media back then. The modes of communication and mobilisation have changed at the same time as the religious field has in the face of advances in sexual and reproductive rights. Evangelical churches have grown throughout the region, and within them, conservative sectors have grown the most.

    I think that to understand the phenomenon it is also key to understand the neoliberal context and its general effects that undermine living conditions. In the socio-political context of neoliberalism, as the state has withdrawn from its basic functions, many religious groups have gone on to perform tasks and provide services that should be provided by the state. In some places, such as in the USA, the Catholic Church has been long in charge of providing services to some groups, such as migrants, that are not tended to by the state. In Latin America, the role of evangelical churches, for instance in the area of aid and treatment for addictions, is really impressive. Evangelical sectors are growing exponentially because they are assisting communities that are being forgotten by the state. Evangelical pastors play central roles in communities, are active in providing social assistance, dealing with addictions and providing health and education services, and are also key in mobilising people – partly because many of them are also members of these communities. They live in the same neighbourhoods and maintain close ties with the members of their congregations.

    In sum, we are not facing a mere battle of narratives. The discourses that we need to stand up to are rooted in the practices of grassroots communities, and often mobilisations are summoned from the pulpit. Calls from the pulpit are important because to many excluded people the church has become indispensable. In countries that have very high poverty rates, for many people the church is the only place of belonging and protection that remains when both the state and the market have excluded them, and therefore do not have access to work, education, or health services. Beyond the fact that religion remains a central element of many people’s identities, these feelings of belonging and community are not minor issues in contexts of extreme precariousness and individualisation brought about by the economic, political, social and cultural neoliberal model.

    What does progressive civil society have to offer in the face of this?

    Progressive civil society has a lot to offer, because it focuses on the struggle for and the creation of liveable, rich, plural ways of life, based on solidarity and mutual support. I don't think there is a single recipe, because this work involves very different movements. There are feminist and LGBTQI movements that work from the standpoint of religious pluralism, disputing the idea of the monopoly of faith, and these are very rich spaces of struggle and belonging. Religions, all of them, comprise plural, democratic and horizontal spaces, which many organisations take advantage of in their struggle for meaning. Other organisations have expertise in crafting messages, and that is where they make their contribution. But this battle is not taking place only, or even mainly, on social media, since not everyone has even access to the internet. The dispute over meaning is fundamental both on social media and offline, as can be seen around the ‘pro-life’ label that many anti-rights groups have appropriated. Women’s and LGBTQI groups working at the grassroots level continually reference this label, by asking the question: how much is my life worth if I do not have access to a job, to the recognition of my identity, to the protection of my health – if the kind of life that is being offered to me is not a decent one? Progressive civil society must claim for itself the defence of life, understood as a dignified, fully human life.

    To offer this response, progressive civil society needs to ally with others who share its values of pluralism, freedom and equality. The pluralist, inclusive, non-essentialist and decolonial feminist agenda is a good basis on which to form alliances with multiple actors that were not attracted by feminism in the past, in order to take part in the struggle for meaning not only in the rhetorical field, but also in concrete reality. Popular feminism represents a return to the realm of the real, as it focuses on the implications of principles on people’s daily lives. If we talk about abortion, for instance, we must focus on the consequences of the legality or illegality of this practice for the daily reality of pregnant women, families and communities. Religion and faith are an important part of people's lives, and the feminist movement, or at least a good part of it, is now working within this reality.

    Get in touch with María Angélica through herFacebook page and check her work onResearchGate.

     

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