Trump’s Legacy Is a Global Alliance Against Women’s Rights
U.S. conservatives have forged dangerous ties on abortion with reactionaries abroad.
“We can’t say this came from nowhere. We knew something was happening, but people were thinking, they just want to scare us, they can’t actually do this. But they did,” said Natalia Woznik, a 25-year-old student who has taken to the streets in Cieszyn, southern Poland, every day since Oct. 22, when the right-wing government announced a near-total ban on abortion. “The majority of politicians are men, and they are saying all this bullshit about what women should do—sit in the kitchen, cooking and taking care of children. They are saying it’s in the Bible. And my generation, we are fighting with these radicals. Come on, it’s the 21st century! We are in Europe. We are in the European Union and it’s like the Middle Ages here, sometimes.”
While the ruling caught some Poles by surprise, it was less of a shock to the Trump administration—or to a string of hard-line Islamic leaders across the Middle East and Africa. On the same day that President Andrzej Duda’s government made its announcement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unveiled the Geneva Consensus Declaration, signed by 35 countries, including Poland. Valerie Huber, the U.S. Health Department Special Representative for Global Women’s Health, called it an “historic event.” It was the first time in history that the governments of the United States, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Pakistan, and South Sudan had described themselves as “like-minded” on the subject of women’s roles and rights—and it’s one of the achievements that Trump and his staff pointed to on their way out the door.
“It’s a combination of authoritarian governments, governments with very strong religious views on women’s rights, highly populist governments that are exploiting polarization and cleavages, and often basic rollback of human rights. And then countries that are dependent on the United States for a special relationship, like Saudi Arabia under MBS [Mohammed bin Salman]. Or countries like Sudan, South Sudan and Libya, that the U.S. can coerce,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy program.
The declaration—which was not signed in Geneva and is not related to the U.N.-affiliated Geneva Consensus Foundation, the World Medical Association’s 1947 Geneva Declaration, or the Geneva Conventions forming the core of international humanitarian law—was the brainchild of Pompeo. It was co-sponsored by the United States, Egypt, Brazil, Indonesia and Uganda, and signed predominantly by hard-line religious, autocratic states. Critics decry it as not only an assault on the self-determination of women around the world, but also, as Beirne Roose-Snyder, director of public policy at CHANGE (Center for Health and Gender Equity), puts it, for establishing a conservative-evangelical ideological framework, set up in parallel to international agreements that are negotiated and binding, by an administration that knew it might be on the way out.
“While they were able to find over two dozen countries to join them, they had to create a parallel structure to U.N. mechanisms to do so,” said Amanda Klasing, the co-director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. “What they did was demonstrate their weakness. I think it sends a message of how isolated their message in fact is.”
Despite calling for better health care for women and asserting equal rights under the law, the heart of the declaration is a commitment by all signatories to prevent women from accessing abortions and to treat the traditional family unit as a protected category. “We have to see this as a conservative consensus,” said Mozn Hassan, the founder of the Egyptian human rights NGO Nazra. “It’s an international attack on women, gender, and sexuality.”
This conservative clarion call, ignored by the United States’ usual allies, attracted the support of many of the world’s most notorious state repressors of women. Five of the signatories appear on the Women, Peace and Security Index’s worst 10 countries in the world to be a woman, with 42 percent in the worst 30. A low bar given that Bahrain, which recently introduced a law preventing women from leaving the house without their husband’s permission, is right down in 84th place.
Few sponsors or signatories of the declaration seemed to take the women’s rights or equality-before-the-law aspects seriously. Pompeo’s speech at the signing focused exclusively on the “rights of the unborn.” Co-sponsors Brazil and Uganda made it clear they see the fledgling alliance as a vehicle for undermining established international institutions, with Ugandan health minister Jane Ruth Aceng Ocero using her speech to encourage African nations to form a “united front” within the U.N. and WHO, to champion their right to put conservative values above health concerns.
Meanwhile, Hungary’s Family Minister Katalin Novak launched an attack on feminism and LGBTQ rights, describing how the declaration’s “global alliance of like-minded countries” was working together to resist the U.N.’s “human rights fundamentalism” agenda. Novak believes these give women “false obligations that they must compete with men and give up on the privileges of being a mother.”
In the official event video released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Novak said: “In the name of gender ideology, ideological neocolonialism, and sex education, there are efforts to devalue the traditional family, the institution of marriage, the blessing of having children.” She also justified Hungary’s hard-line conservative stance, pursued in defiance of “mainstream” Europe, by claiming it had led to a 20 percent increase in the birth rate since 2011. This reflects a pronatalist preoccupation by far-right groups on both sides of the pond, closely related to a white nationalist ideology—namely, the paranoia that other races procreate faster. In the United States, it’s no longer just fringe groups that promote the so-called white-baby challenge, encouraging Caucasian parents to have more children. The idea crossed over to the mainstream in 2017, when Republican Congressman for Iowa Steve King tweeted support for Dutch anti-immigration, anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders. Wilders, King wrote, understood that you can’t restore the demographics of a (white) society “with someone else’s babies.”
“The anti-abortion and anti-women Geneva Consensus Declaration signed by the U.S. and other regressive governments is dangerous and deeply misguided,” said Leila Hessini, the vice president of programs at Global Fund for Women. “Through this declaration and the global gag rule, the United States seeks to curtail people’s self-determination and control over their bodies, lives, and destinies.”
For the declaration to focus on restricting reproductive rights is all the more alarming given that so many of its signatory countries are experiencing serious rape epidemics. In Brazil, most of the country’s known rape victims are children between 11 and 15, with four girls under 13 raped every hour. In the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon, rape is frequently used as a weapon of war. In Benin and Burkina Faso, both forced and child marriage is rife; a quarter of girls in Benin are married as children and most in Burkina Faso between the ages of 10 and 19. Many of these girls will become pregnant at a dangerously early age; according to Amnesty International, 1 in 22 women and girls in Burkina Faso die as a result of pregnancy.
Trafficking, including into sexual slavery, is also a major risk. Of all the countries to sponsor or sign the declaration, only one—Bahrain—complies with the U.S. State Department’s own standards to protect victims of trafficking. Five of them (Belarus, Congo, Gambia, South Sudan and Saudi Arabia) have been given the very worst rating of Tier 3, meaning they not only have a dire track record but are making no significant efforts to improve it.
“It beats me why a country that is coming out of 10 years of violence and conflict would see it as a priority to sign a declaration like that,” said Hanan Salah, the senior Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch. Abortion in Libya, a signatory country, is already illegal and reproductive rights are a taboo subject, she says—and given that women lack a political voice and activists live in terror of reprisals by militants, it’s not as if many are campaigning for these laws to be relaxed.
If Libya was genuinely motivated to improve health-care outcomes for women and promote equality before the law, there are far more logical places to start. Salah points to the decimated health service, the lack of women in government, and the “dystopian” legal system, pitted against women, in which domestic violence is not a crime, rapists evade prosecution by marrying their victims, anyone who has sex outside of marriage can be flogged and jailed for up to five years (theoretically, for women, along with any resulting babies), and men receive reduced sentences for murdering a female family member if they claim her chastity was in doubt.
In Egypt, Hassan echoes this sentiment. “Having these Arab countries, African countries, Islamic countries join with the United States and Brazil at this historic moment in time is not something that shocked me,” she said. “It’s how they are so open about presenting this in the time of COVID-19. This is what they care about! At a time when these countries have been almost destroyed by the consequences of COVID-19, what they care about, what they put to the international community, is policing women’s bodies. Well, thank you for that!”
While the situation in Poland suggests that some signatories have been emboldened to pursue more extreme positions, for many nations on the list, signing the declaration seems little more than an attempt to curry favor with the United States. Take Sudan, which signed the declaration the day before it officially recognised Israel—at Trump’s behest, as a condition of its removal from the U.S. state terrorism list. Or Libya, governed by an interim Government of National Accord which—although rattled by internal divisions and facing an uncertain future—made time for Pompeo’s project the same week it was already in Geneva, negotiating a U.N.-brokered permanent ceasefire with a rival faction supported by Russia and Turkey. For the United States to rally support from these quarters, with their dismal human rights records, smacks of desperation—and sets a worrying precedent.
“We’re on a precipice,” said Roose-Snyder, speaking before Trump’s election defeat. “This could be a roadmap for how the United States is going to conduct diplomacy, where they continue to deepen their alliances with authoritarian states, with theocratic states, states whose only real alliance with them is around being anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ. It’s very dark. It’s a very dark future.” That future has been temporarily held off thanks to the Democratic Party’s victory, and a planned rollback of abortion restrictions. But the other signatories’ positions remain unchanged.
Women around the world are not accepting the backlash without a fight. Klasing says that, while the United States has given credence to the anti-women’s rights movement, she has “never seen more emphatic support” for sexual and reproductive rights. As Natalia points out, even in her small city of 30,000 people, a tiny protest grew to a crowd of thousands within days, joining nearly half a million others who marched all across Poland, alarming the government into delaying the abortion ban. Protests in Poland have swollen to take on freedom of speech issues following government attempts to crack down further.
And in Egypt, Hassan remains upbeat about the future of women’s rights in the region. “We have to gather ourselves together with like-minded countries that have a feminist foreign policy, that are not against us, but say clearly that we need different priorities. A different consensus,” she said.
The U.S. State Department and Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to requests for comment.
Nathan Paul Southern is an investigative reporter and security specialist. Twitter: @NathanPSouthern