US isolated at ‘failed’ anti-abortion summit in Nairobi

Conservative protests against global development conference in Kenya fail to draw crowds, or derail commitments

Nandini Archer Claire Provost Mary Fitzgerald
15 November 2019, 8.35pm
Inside the empty counter-summit in Nairobi, Kenya
R Bak

US representatives found themselves isolated at a “failed” counter-summit, organised by religious conservative groups, to protest against the  International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD25) in Nairobi this week.

More than 9,500 people from 170 countries attended the three-day Nairobi Summit, queuing for hours to get in on the opening day. Five people were rushed to hospital after fainting in the packed lines of delegates.

In contrast, around the corner, openDemocracy found a sparsely attended counter-summit organised by groups rallying against sex education, LGBTIQ rights and access to safe abortion. 

Throughout the week, Kenyan, US and European activists at the counter-summit accused the ICPD25 of “cultural imperialism” and claimed that LGBTIQ people are sick and need treatment.

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However, their protests failed to get much traction. On Thursday, numerous placards were left lying on the floor along the side of the venue after only a few dozen people showed up for a demonstration. 

“They were predicting thousands – this was a huge blow for them and an embarrassment,” said Remigiusz Bak, policy officer at the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (EPF). 

“The US in the end was very isolated,” he added, citing how only a handful of countries signed a US-led statement against the ICPD25 summit. “They hugely underestimated the culture of people here, the openness and inclusiveness.”

They hugely underestimated the culture of people here, the openness and inclusiveness

The ICPD25 summit was organised by the Kenyan and Danish governments and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) to evaluate progress since the 1994 Cairo meetings that set goals on issues such as contraception and maternal mortality. 

Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta addressed the summit, saying: “Advancing people’s rights, in particular, women’s rights, their choices and their well-being, is the path to prosperous and resilient societies.” 

Top UN officials praised Kenya’s leadership in hosting the summit, while the director-general of the Kenya National Council for Population and Development, Josephine Kibaru-Mbae, called it “a massive success”.

Meanwhile, the counter-summit was “largely facilitated and led by Western organisations,” said Kenyan women’s rights activist Jade Maina.

“Religious extremists polarised the situation for months in the build-up to ICPD25,” she said, but the counter-summit was “mostly attended by white men trying to make decisions for Black African and especially Kenyan women”. 

Vincent Villenueve, also from EPF, contrasted the media attention to the counter-summit with its “failure to find fertile ground” in Nairobi, while the ICPD25 “was full of African leaders, civil society and activists”. 

It was mostly attended by white men trying to make decisions for Black African and especially Kenyan women

Photographs from inside the counter-summit show numerous empty chairs. Human rights activists who also attended the counter-summit said they saw fewer than 50 people at most of its sessions, and fewer than ten at some.

One British speaker urged attendees to “get dressed and ready for battle,'' after sharing the addresses of local family planning service providers. He also suggested that African countries should restrict foreign-funded NGOs, as Russia has done.

A US official, Dianne Foley, compared teenage sex to the risks associated with tobacco and drug consumption, advocating an abstinence-first, “just say no” approach to educating young people. 

She took aim at comprehensive sexuality education programmes advocated by UN agencies, urging parents to more closely scrutinise what their children are being taught.

Other US officials who addressed the counter-summit claimed that UN institutions and abortion rights are ideological and unpopular, and gave a detailed presentation on how attendees could apply for US aid funding.

Brazilian and Polish politicians were also there. Their countries were among the few that signed a US-led statement against the summit, along with Belarus, Egypt, Haiti, Hungary, Libya, Senegal, St Lucia and Uganda.

Meanwhile, ICPD25 organisers said their large global summit had “mobilised more than 1,200 commitments from around the world”, along with billions of dollars in financial pledges, to tackle issues including maternal deaths and unmet needs for family planning.

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