Catholic church finally weighs in with its usual list of demands, but campaigners sense that the Holy See is losing influence
Had the Holy See, which has a seat on the UN as a non-member permanent observer state, and which in 2013 proposed more amendments to the outcome text than any other member, decided to stay out of the discussions this year? Was it quietly influencing the actions of countries with a strong Catholic population without putting its head above water? Would it come into the negotiations late? It appears to have opted for the latter.
This week, the Holy See weighed into the discussions with demands to remove from the CSW outcome document references to sex workers, lesbian, gay, transsexual and bisexual rights, and some of the wording around sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) – specifically those related to abortion and sex education. It is also understood to want the document to include explicit references to the importance of the family – and when the Vatican talks about family, it means in the traditional, nuclear sense: a man, woman and their children.
Although there is no reason to believe these demands will derail the negotiations – the Vatican issued similar statements around SRHR last year, but, after a battle, a strong document still emerged from CSW – the particular reference to the "family" has set off some alarm bells.
Women's rights campaigners argue that the wording used when talking about family can reinforce gender roles and stereotypes: women as wives, mothers and homemakers. And it can also ignore the diversity of families: single-parent families, child- or female-headed households or same-sex families.
Campaigners are pushing back, arguing that no more than a single paragraph related to the role of family should be included in the CSW document, and that paragraph should recognise the diversity of families.
Women's rights campaigners are used to a fight, particularly against the Vatican, other religious groups and more conservative governments. But there is a sense, this year, that the Vatican is beginning to lose some of its influence.
Kowalski says she is unfazed by the Vatican's exhortations on SRHR, but fears trouble could come from another quarter. The EU and the US are unhappy with wording around trade, women's economic justice and climate change.
"We're starting to see a lot of the traditional north-south debates about trade, about climate change and other issues," she says. "These have more potential to bring negotiations down."
Other pushbacks are coming from the African bloc of countries, which has once again thrown in a sovereignty clause, which is in effect a get-out-of-jail-free card for governments, allowing them to sign the outcome document, but ignore the bits they don't like – usually the points that could potentially restrict cultural and religious practices. It is understood, though, that South Africa has broken away from the African negotiating group.
A similar sovereignty paragraph was included in last year's document, but was removed in the end on the condition that references to sex workers and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights were also erased. A similar trade-off is expected this year.
There are, of course, plenty of positives in the draft text that is largely agreed upon: a standalone goal on gender equality to be included in the next development goals after 2015; clear references to protection of women and girls from violence, including an end to harmful practices such as female genital mutilation, child marriage and "honour" crimes; protection for women's rights activists in their work and enforcement of the crucial role women play in peace and security negotiations. The outcome document is due to be signed on 21 March.
Although no one will be complacent, the small signs that those who want to roll back the hard-fought rights of women are beginning to lose some ground will be encouraging for activists. It could mean in future that less time spent arguing over wording will mean more time discussing policy implementation and ensuring governments are held to account, which will be good news for women all over the word.