We are living through a coordinated global backlash against sexual and reproductive rights. Concurrently, the world is seeing a rise in authoritarianism. These two phenomena are linked.
In 2021, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance published its yearly report on the Global State of Democracy raising the alarm about the rise in authoritarianism around the world. Autocratic regimes have become more brazen in their repression and many governments slid back down the democratic scale with the adoption of tactics that restrict free speech and weaken the rule of law. The rising support for extreme-right politicians and political parties in several countries and their entry into mainstream politics is further precipitating the weakening of democratic institutions.
At the same time, there has been an intensification of attacks on gender equality and sexual and reproductive rights. These efforts take different forms, are led by a range of actors, and occur in many places, including multilateral spaces like the United Nations, national political and legislative processes, online, in schools, and in our communities. Despite their seemingly organic response to isolated events, these attacks share common tactics, strategies, and funders across borders, and are linked to broader white supremacist, anti-democratic, anti-human rights, and oppressive regimes and political actors.
Unpacking the Connection between Sexual and Reproductive Rights and Democracy
Gender and sexuality are deeply symbolic, culturally meaningful concepts in every part of the world. They are often used to determine political inclusion and participation on one hand and exclusion and marginalization on the other. As challengers to inequality in all its manifestations, feminists and women’s rights organizations have always faced fierce resistance from those who have a vested interest in continuing the status quo.
In recent years, we have seen the concurrent rise of anti-democratic leaders, populism and direct attacks on sexual and reproductive rights, women's rights and gender equality in several countries. This is not a coincidence.
Hostility to sexual and reproductive rights binds many political agendas. Alliances between explicitly white supremacist and ultra-nationalist groups, religious fundamentalists, anti-trans rights groups and anti-abortion movements have been well documented. What brings these groups together is the explicit need to dominate women’s sexual and reproductive rights and impose strict and repressive regulations on gender expression and sexuality. At the heart of many of these movements is the perpetuation of patriarchy as the organizing principle of society and its family unit—always heteronormative and reproduction-oriented. For many, it is implicitly or explicitly linked to ideologies of white supremacy. Women’s rights, abortion, and LGBTQI+ rights are presented as existential threats to a so-called “natural order” and to the nation state.
Political scientists have long noted that advancement in women’s civil rights and democracy go hand-in-hand as women’s rights activism and political participation is a precondition for genuine democratic and egalitarian progress. Authoritarian and populist movements are centered around the ideal of progress for only those who are included in their community, as opposed to progress for all.
As such, the realization of sexual and reproductive rights and gender equality is a direct challenge to autocrats and populist movements who have identified and targeted these rights as threats to their purpose. Anti-democratic actors understand the potency of using issues that can be culturally contentious, such as abortion, trans rights, and comprehensive sexuality education (sex ed) to galvanize voters to support them. Whether we see states eroding democratically accepted norms of human rights, or we identify non-state actors organizing, financing, and influencing politics and society to undermine bodily autonomy, these are all signs that democracy is under threat.
Understanding the coordinated global backlash against SRHR
The present challenges to national, regional, and international policy spaces by anti-rights actors is unprecedented. Anti-rights actors utilize opposition to sexual and reproductive rights and gender equality as an organizing principle to attract money, support, and influence across a wide spectrum of anti-democratic political and economic agendas. These anti-rights actors operate in their own regions and influence global and domestic policy.
United Nations independent experts and feminist activists have documented the co-option and weaponization of human rights concepts and terms such as “family,” “family values,” “traditional values,” “freedom,” and "culture" to undermine sexual and reproductive rights and gender equality. The high-profile overturning of the constitutionally protected right to abortion in the United States was only the tip of the iceberg and represents years of methodical chipping away of the institutions designed to uphold women’s civil rights. It is a mistake to believe the overturning of abortion rights in the US is a unique context and that roll backs in rights will not happen elsewhere due to the same forces.
In Canada, there are over 300 documented anti-abortion organizations that seek to dissuade people from accessing safe abortion by using a variety of tactics, including disseminating misleading information. Many are affiliated with US based organizations, mimic their talking points around “traditional values,” reject the advancement of a range of human rights related to sexuality and gender, and are emboldened by support from mainstream political parties. Activated by disinformation, these groups have found common cause with transnational anti-COVID-19 vaccine and extremist hate groups. Antidemocratic sentiment is increasingly accepted, as witnessed in Canada with the so-called “trucker convoy” occupation of Ottawa, the stated aim of which was to “overthrow the government.”
A 2021 report by the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights documented funding from Russian oligarchs to anti-abortion organizations across Europe. These same oligarchs have been sanctioned for their role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which President Putin has framed as a defense of “traditional values.” In 2020, OpenDemocracy revealed that 12 US Christian-right organisations led by supporters of former US President Donald Trump spent at least 280 million USD across five continents to influence global policy and public opinion to oppose sexual and reproductive rights.
At the United Nations, this backlash takes similar forms with more of an emphasis on procedural tactics to delay and dilute international agreements on sexual and reproductive rights. Bolstered by well-funded anti-rights organizations, some states have made concerted efforts to undermine agreed-upon language, norms, and conventions, derailing negotiations on resolutions and co-opting language of human rights to undermine the spirit and purpose of multilateral accountability mechanisms. A less visible assault but no less harmful is the starving of resources to the multilateral institutions charged with investigating human rights abuses and advancing global standards of accountability. The UN Human Rights Council and its related mechanisms are currently facing a financial crisis that is preventing this foremost body on human rights from discharging its core mandate.
Building Better Democracies through Support for Women’s Rights and Feminist Movements
With a history of fighting against oppressive norms and behaviours that consolidate power in the hands of the few, feminist and social justice movements are a powerful defense against authoritarianism. History also shows that women and feminist movements have been at the forefront of the expansion and strengthening of democracies all over the world.
To strengthen democracy, we need the strongest possible commitment to a robust and vibrant civil society, to feminist and social justice movements, to greater participation of women and gender-diverse people in peace building and peace negotiations, and to increasing gender equality, particularly through the protection of sexual and reproductive health and rights at home and abroad.
The work of feminist and human rights organizations cannot be seen as separate from strengthening democracy and human rights. The fight for sexual and reproductive rights is part of the larger human rights and democratic movements. All governments have a role in ensuring strong and sustained support for feminist movements around the world. These activists and organizations are doing the critical work of holding governments accountable, pushing for legal and policy change that benefit all people, and practising transnational solidarity—the backbone of a more peaceful and just world.
What should Canada do to support the global efforts towards democracy and rights?
At home and abroad, Canada must take concrete actions to fulfil its obligations to respect, protect and fulfill the sexual and reproductive rights of all persons, particularly the neglected areas of SRHR. Canada must continue to invest in SRHR progress domestically and globally, including investing in feminist movements and organizations that are at the heart of social progress across the world. And they must stand up for human rights in the halls of parliament, at the United Nations, and in our communities. This moment demands bold leadership from Canada that is backed by concrete action. The only antidote to rising autocratic movements that attempt to divide communities is to fund and take seriously the demands of organizations and movements that are working to bring people into a bolder, more equal vision of our future.
Specific Recommendations for Canada include:
- Canada must ensure it delivers on its 10-year commitment to provide 700 million a year for global SRHR programming, with at least $500 million of that focused on the neglected areas of SRHR (abortion, contraception, adolescent SRHR including comprehensive sexuality education, and SRHR advocacy).
- Canada should push forward the promised localization agenda in international development and prioritize engagement with and funding for feminist organizations and movements globally, including through ongoing support to programming of the Equality Fund and other grassroots funding mechanisms.
- Canada must champion sexual and reproductive rights for all as a clear component of its foreign policy, including through the articulation of a Canadian global SRHR policy that would help safeguard support for SRHR across Canada’s domestic policy, development assistance, and foreign policy.
- Canada must challenge the erosion of SRHR language in international negotiations and stand with global allies to champion SRHR.
- Ensure that Canada’s promised feminist foreign policy addresses the links between democracy and gender equality and SRHR.
- Commit the promised $10 million to Health Canada to create and publicize an information portal to increase the public’s access to accurate, evidence-based information on sexual and reproductive health, including on abortion and on gender affirming care to directly counter the misinformation disseminated by crisis pregnancy centres and anti-rights groups.
- Canada must end federal support for the hundreds of anti-rights organizations in Canada who are posing as charitable organizations with the purpose of spreading misinformation and negating people’s human rights.
- Canada should make permanent and increase resources to the federal SRHR funding mechanism that addresses barriers to access and provides essential core funding to SRHR organizations across Canada.
- Support Canadian movements for women’s rights and gender equality beyond election cycles so that they can thrive through an independent investment fund that can provide long-term sustainable funding to feminist movements.