Women and involvement of church in the UN

Dr. Maswoodur Rahman Prince
The Independent (Bangladesh), September 3, 1999

An international campaign to challenge the Vatican's status at the United Nations was launched by a coalition of women's religious and reproductive rights and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in March 1999. Much before this campaign back in 1995, Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) initiated a petition asking the Untied Nations to consider the status of the Holy See. Hundreds of NGOs from around the world signed the petition, along with approximately 2,000 individuals who signed the petition at the Fourth World Conference on Women and the NGO Forum. In 1999, CFFC launched the ``see change'' campaign to change the Holy See's status in the UN. This initiative includes an international postcard campaign to the Secretary-General of the UN and is endorsed by a large coalition of women's religious, and reproductive rights organisations.

Now let us try to identify the reasons behind the ouster campaign. It may be recalled that several UN conferences-specifically the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo and the 1995 Women's Conference in Beijing (CEDAM) saw the Roman Catholic Church take a strong minority view against family planning. The Vatican makes an indirect link between family planning and abortion, which the church vehemently opposes. Since the Untied Nations takes most of its decisions by consensus, dissenting voices, such as those of the Vatican have derailed negotiations on issues relating to population, contraception, women's rights and reproductive health care. The Vatican used its privileged position of permanent observer during the special session of the UN (UNGA) which reviewed the successes and failures of the Cairo Population Conference held in 1995. The review of five years implementation of Cairo Programme of Action was held between 30 June and July 2 at the UN headquarters in New York.

As the world governments came together to review the progress towards the achievement of goals set at the Cairo conference the Vatican, using its privileged position consistently opposed in one way or other the widely accepted health measures such as contraception and sexuality education. Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice says, "If the Vatican has a right to a seat in the United Nations, then Euro Disney should be a member of the UN Security Council." Currently, Switzerland and the Holy See, which represents the Vatican, are the only two "Permanent Observers" in the 185-member United Nations. The Holy See was given this status in 1964. An international coalition of more than 70 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) representing every region of the world, now wants UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to conduct an official review of the Vatican's non-member status in the world body. Among the participating NGOs are Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, the Latin American and Caribbean Women's Health Network, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, the Israel Women's Network, the National Organisation for Women and the Center for Health and Gender Equity in India. Frances Kissling, president of the Catholics for a Free Choice again asks, "Why should an entity that is in essence 100 squire acres of office space and tourist attractions in the middle of Rome, and with a citizenry that excludes women and children, have a place at the table where governments set policies affecting the very survival of women and children?" According to Kissling, the international condition is not opposed to the Vatican expressing its views in the public policy process.

The Vatican is entitled to its views. "It is welcome to put forward its views as any other interest group, along with others of the world's religions and we support their right to do so," said Ms. Kissling. "What is in question is the right of this non-state to occupy a position with governments," she said. Kissling further said that the appropriate role for the Vatican is to be considered an NGO-the same as all the other NGOs representing Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahais and other religious organisations. Although the Vatican cannot vote in the annual General Assembly, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II have addressed the world groups, and the Vatican's permanent observer addressed its 10th special session on disarmament. By contrast other Christian sects like the Anglicans and the Methodists as well as major faiths, such as Islam, Buddhism and Judaism, are represented by accredited non-governmental organisations that have none of those privileges. "To ensure the United Nations does not promote one particular religious view, religious entities like the Catholic church should not be given the status of a non member status," said Anika Rahman of the Washington-based Center for Reproductive Law and Policy.

In a paper titled "Church or State: the Holy See at the United Nations," Ms. Rahman argues that by calling itself the Holy See, the Vatican has ceased to meet some of the definitions of statehood laid down in the Montevideo Convention on the rights and duties of States. The See Change campaign says in one of its print material under subtitle Religious Freedom is Endangered as follows. "Even other religions with representation at the UN like the World Council of Churches is rightly restricted to an affiliation based on that of other non-governmental organisations. At a time when religious fundamentalism threatens pluralism, tolerance, and women's rights, the UN must maintain a clear separation between religious beliefs and international public policy". The See Change Campaign opines that successfully changing the Holy Sees status will ensure that only countries decide policy, save women's live and will assist in reversing the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Maria Mejia, a researcher at the Universidard Autonomia de Mesco and a leader of Mexico's Women's Reproductive Rights Movements and also head of the Mexican counterpart of the Catholics for Contraception says, "For women in Latin America, achieving social and political equality with men is a continuing struggle against the culture of machismo that permeates the church, the family and the state. The struggle is made more difficult. Family planning by itself is not a magic pill. It will not end poverty or create justice, but without access to family planning to safe, effective modern contraceptives women in Latin America have little chance of achieving equality.

"Tragically, Opus Dei and other church-linked groups, together with Pope John Paul's new cadre of young, conservative bishops who have supplanted the progressive bishops here, are conducting a concerted campaign to limit if not ban, family planning programmes." These are the leaders who do not see women's rights as an important issue, who do not preach against domestic violence, who fight sexuality education in the schools, who refuse to admit children of unwed mothers to Catholic schools. Women all over Latin America, from comunidades de base' to the feminist community, want family planning for their freedom and advancement. Today's family planning programmes recognise a women's moral right to make informed and free decisions about how many children she will have and when. In the face of all evidence that family planning programmes are both ethical and effective, church leaders continue to fight them.