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Rio+20 Retreats on Its Commitment to Women’s Reproductive Rights

On June 20–22, 2012, world leaders and fifty thousand members of government, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and other groups convened for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The highly anticipated conference, called Rio+20, took place 20 years after the momentous 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Rio+20, like its predecessor, assembled with the purpose of reducing global poverty, advancing social equity, and rethinking economic growth to ensure environmental protection by urging governments to “adopt clear and focused practical measures for implementing sustainable development.”[1]
When Rio+20 ended, the initial enthusiasm and high expectations gave way to sore disappointment and growing anger. Greenpeace activists quickly dubbed it “Rio minus 20,”[2] and the anti-poverty organization CARE called the event a “political charade.”[3]  According to attendees, the conference failed to produce any significant steps forward and did little more than reaffirm original commitments made at the first summit. In fact, the word “reaffirm” is used 59 times in the 49-page political document titled “The Future We Want,” that was released at the culmination of the summit.[4] Yet, Rio+20 did not just stall on making new commitments, such as calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies—it also took several daunting steps backward.[5]
Throughout the entire document, zero references are made to reproductive rights. The decision to strike the commitment to reproductive rights from the final draft and the troubling overlook of gender and health is due largely as a reaction to the Vatican’s Holy See.[6] The Holy See is “a non-member observer state” of the United Nations, and despite its non-membership status, it was heavily influential in Rio+20’s processes. It “proposed nearly one hundred deletions and alterations to the text on gender, health and education,” more than was made by any other member state.[7] At the original summit in 1992, the Holy See fought but failed to remove a statement of dedication to safe and effective reproductive health care for women. Twenty years later, the quest to“block progress on advancing sexual health and reproductive rights” was triumphant.[8]
As noted by reproductive health and women’s right advocates, leaving out women’s reproductive health rights from a conversation on sustainable development is alarming. Family planning is intimately connected to sustainable development and “issues ranging from poverty and food security to climate change and beyond”[9]
Consequences of environmental change—floods, droughts, crop failure—affect everyone, but are especially hard on women and families. As the primary people responsible for gathering water, firewood, and other household resources, women are on the front lines of the climate crisis. When they are able plan the timing of their own childbearing, they can better adapt to the unpredictable impacts of climate change, and ensure the survival of their families.[10]
Currently, over two hundred million women in developing countries who would like contraception to plan their families are unable to access it.[11]
Neglecting reproductive rights is also poor strategy. Family planning is one of the cheapest avenues to sustainable development, saving six dollars for every one invested.[12] A truly sustainable future will not be possible without gender equity, which includes sexual and reproductive health rights. “The only way to respond to increasing human numbers and dwindling resources is through the empowerment of women,” said Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former director-general of the World Health Organization.[13] However, women were mentioned in less than .01 percent of the final text.[14]
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out against the assault and retreat on reproductive rights stating that, “to reach our goals in sustainable development we also have to ensure women’s reproductive rights.”[15] She added that “women must be empowered to make decisions about whether and when to have children.”[16] While Rio+20 was certainly a setback, Clinton assured that the U.S. “will continue to work to ensure that [reproductive] rights are respected in international agreements.”[17]

[1]“About Rio+20,” United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, accessed 25 June 2012,

[2]Preethi Nallu, “Alternative Voices from Rio+20,” Aljazeera, 23 June 2012, accessed 25 June 2012,

[3]Simon Romero and John M. Broder, “Progress on the Sidelines as Rio Conference Ends,” New York Times, 23 June 2012, accessed 25 June 2012,

[4]“Rio+20 U.N. environmental summit’s unhappy ending,” Associated Press, 23 June 2012, accessed 25 June 2012,


[6]Genevieve Stewart, “Holy See and Sex,” Huffington Post, 26 June 2012, accessed 26 June 2012,


[8]Simon Romero and John M. Broder, “Progress on the Sidelines as Rio Conference Ends.”

[9]Zofeen Ebrahim, “What does birth control have to do with reducing global emissions?,” TrustLaw, 24 June 2012, accessed 25 June 2012,



[12]Genevieve Stewart, “Holy See and Sex.”

[13]Zofeen Ebrahim, “What does birth control have to do with reducing global emissions?”

[14]Suzanne Ehlers and Michael Brune, “Why women’s needs must be part of the conversation at Rio,” Population Action International, 21 June 2012, accessed 25 June 2012,

[15]“Reference to ‘Reproductive Rights’ Removed From Final Text at U.N. Earth Summit,” National Partnership for Women and Families, 25 June 2012, accessed 25 June 2012,