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Canada A World Leader in Advocating Lesbian Equality
Hedy Fry discusses 'Beijing +5' as Head of Canadian Delegation

Secretary of State (Multiculturalism) (Status of Women) Dr. Hedy Fry tells about the recent United Nations General Assembly Special Session on gender equality, advocating for lesbian equality on the world stage, and why 'sexual orientation' was not adopted into the language of the Beijing +5  Platform for Action document.

The Honourable Dr. Hedy Fry, Secretary of State (Multiculturalism) (Status of Women)
FROM June 6th to 9th the United Nations General Assembly held the 'Beijing +5' conference on gender equality - the rights of women - in New York.  The purpose of the conference was to advance the gains made during the original Beijing conference in 1995 and contained in the document entitled Platform for Action.  The process was one of consensus-building among representatives of member nations.  Secretary of State (Multiculturalism) (Status of Women) Dr. Hedy Fry headed up the Canadian delegation.

In 1995 Canada introduced sexual orientation at Beijing with a view to having it included in the language of the document being developed.  That document would affirm the equality rights of women in countries around the world.

The introduction didn't fly, or at least, not per se.

"It wasn't accepted as sexual orientation," says Dr. Fry of the original Beijing adoptions.  "The word[ing] used was 'other status,' she explained.

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Since that time Canada has interpreted that phrase to include 'sexual orientation.'  Although not explicitly included in the language of the Beijing Platform for Action document, based on the development of the final wording chosen the equality rights of lesbians around the world were implicitly recognized - at least by Canada.

Other countries have since joined in that interpretation, says the Secretary of State who regularly lobbies her international ministerial equivalents while attending gatherings of other multi-country organizations such as the (British) Commonwealth, la francophonie, the Organization of American States, and others.

"Canada brought it in and then ... South Africa, the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and some members of the European Union," states Dr. Fry.

Canada took it again (to the UN this month) to see if this time other countries were ready to move, she said.  It was part of an attempt to advance gender equality with respect to the diversity of women.

Said Dr. Fry in her opening statement to the Special Session, "In spite of [Canada's] progress, many societal and systemic barriers still remain.  In a multicultural nation such as ours, gender analysis has shown that women's inequality is further compounded by their diversity, their race, ethnic, immigrant and indigenous status, sexual orientation, disability and age.  Therefore, recognition of diversity is for us an essential factor."

This time, in New York, Canada had full support from the developed world, says Dr. Fry.  "In [the original Beijing] only Canada was in support of sexual orientation ... this time about five other countries agreed on the interpretation [of the 'other status'] phrase - including South Africa, New Zealand, the European Union (EU) and Norway [part of the EU],"  she said.

In other words, saying "We take it to mean sexual orientation" of the 'other status' phrase.

The representative of Canada added, however, that not all countries agreed.  "Some [countries] had moved - the Caribbean [ones] and most of the Commonwealth - but not all of the European Community, Latin America, or Islam and Asia," she stated.

With non-secular or religious states this is a religious or cultural issue and they vote accordingly.

  - Hedy Fry
Indeed, towards the end of the conference the Beijing +5 Lesbian Caucus issued a statement saying, among other things, "We deplore the undermining of the human rights of lesbians, part of a systematic attack on the rights of all women that is being mounted at this conference.  Fundamentalist forces, both in the halls of the UN and in the world outside, politicize 'culture' and 'religion' to serve as alibis for torture and murder, or to defend practices of violence and abuse.  The UN is a microcosm of the world it represents.  There is homophobia and hatred within it "

Dr. Fry conceded that the conference failed to move forward lesbian equality rights by having them explicitly adopted into the language of the document. asked her to explain why.

"[For] different cultural and religious [reasons]," explained the head of Canada's delegation.  "[With] non-secular or religious states this is a religious or cultural issue and [they] vote accordingly," she continued.

But Dr. Fry knew the effort to include 'sexual orientation' in the language wouldn't be won over.

"It has to be a consensus," she declared.  "It's not a vote ... it often is the lowest common denominator," she said of the position of those member nations who do not support a resolution.  A few - or even one - of the 180 nations staunchly disagreeing will cause a resolution to fail.

"That's why we fight to get progress in other areas," continued Dr. Fry.  "And there was progress there.

"We didn't lose the language at Beijing," she said, but agreed that the New York conference didn't move equality for lesbians forward, either.

In her closing statement to the Special Session Dr. Fry said, "President, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a violation of human rights.  This principle is established in Canadian law.  On the international level, sexual orientation is included as the prohibited grounds of discrimination set out in a number of binding international human rights instruments, either as discrimination on the grounds of 'sex' or on the grounds of 'other status.'  The United Nations Human Rights Committee and other parts of the United Nations human rights system have upheld this position.  Given this, we regret that the document fails to include a more explicit reflection of this principle."

But the end result of the language of the Beijing +5 document is not the only result, explains Dr. Fry.  "I look at it as a piece in a bigger picture," she said.

The significance of this 'bigger picture' for gender equality moving forward, with its implicit meanings of loose language and progress in other areas, is that it may - once could speculate - drag the individual resisted areas kicking and screaming forward with it.

"Since '95, Beijing did educate the world," declared Dr. Fry.

And the resistance of certain countries to affirm and grant women's rights - often denying them in the name of culture and religion - is increasingly difficult to defend as the world becomes one community.

"That's a 'positive' of globalization," said Dr. Fry.  "Countries know that others are watching them," she continued, intimating that such resistance may come to affect countries' trade relations.

One issue that is increasing in visibility - as the International AIDS Conference gets set to launch July 9th in South Africa - is young women becoming infected with HIV through marriage situations.  It exemplifies how cultural, religious and economic factors can create horrifying results when combined with gender inequality.

We have managed to fight and win this time and gained that cultural practice that harms girls and women is not acceptable.

  - Hedy Fry
A high infection rate in some African countries (arguably an economic manifestation), forced marriages with forced sex (cultural), condoms in low supply or with high prices (again, economic), their use considered 'birth control' and therefore wrong (religious), and lack of access to pharmaceutical treatment subsequent to infection (more economics and some say politics) results in some women - and some very young women - having no choice but to become infected with HIV and have it go untreated.

These factors - access to health services; information about health issues; knowledge; and choice when it comes to marrying, bearing children, or even just having sex - are what are referred to with the expression 'sexual and reproductive rights.'

It would appear that these rights involve a complex and - no doubt - sensitive group of issues in some countries, and do not equate simply to 'promotion of abortion' as the religious right in Canada asserts.

Dr. Fry expressed particular concern with girls at the ages of 8-10 being forced to marry.

"The medical risks of having a child below the age of 16 alone are enormous," she declared.

Her closing statement to the Special Session continued, "We would note that we have made no gains from Beijing on the inherent right of the person to make decisions about her sexual and reproductive life."

The statement from the Lesbian Caucus continued, "We condemn this distortion of the notion of sovereignty and the nature of faith.  We affirm, in the words of Paragraph 9 of the Beijing Platform for Action, that 'While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural, and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of all States 'to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.'"

Gains made

Notwithstanding these two issues, the Beijing +5 conference did achieve some gains in the area of gender equality or women's rights.

"We have managed to fight and win this time and gained that cultural practice that harms girls and women is not acceptable," Dr. Fry announced of the continuing occurrences in the world of honour killings, dowry killings, forced marriages, and violence inflicted upon women.

In addition, she told the conference closing, "Canada is pleased that the document reaffirms and reinforces women's rights as human rights and that there is censure for the abhorrent practice of trafficking in women and girls and an acknowledgment of the compounding role played by new communications technology in this regard."

In closing with, Dr. Fry made an interesting comment.

"We get a lot of people coming [to gatherings such as Beijing +5]," she said.  "We go to bat for other countries on issues that have no relevance for us," she said of Canada's progressive situation with equality.

The Secretary of State indicated she would continue attempting to build support for equality for women - and lesbians as women - in her ongoing participation in gatherings of other country groups such as the Commonwealth, la francophonie, the Organization of American States, and others.

"Equality is a slow, painful, agonizing process," she concluded.

Further information on the work of Dr. Hedy Fry and her department may be found at the Status of Women Canada site.