Anti-Gender Mobilization At The World Health Assembly

When a draft resolution at the World Health Assembly advocated for comprehensive sexuality education, anti-gender groups sprang into action to block it.
Logo of the World Health Organization (Source: United States Mission Geneva, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Logo of the World Health Organization (Source: United States Mission Geneva, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Haley McEwen is Senior Researcher at the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Haley is a nationally rated researcher in South Africa, and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right. She is also Associate Editor of the International Journal of Critical Diversity Studies.

In May 2021, delegates from the World Health Organization gathered vitally for the 74th World Health Assembly. Just over one year since the global COVID-19 pandemic began, the agenda was focused on how WHO could better support member states in their response to the pandemic. In addition to its focus on “Ending this pandemic, preventing the next: building together a healthier, safer and fairer world,” the Assembly also dedicated time to addressing the increasing forms of violence and economic burden that women and children around the world face andare experiencing even more acutely as a result of the pandemic.

A draft resolution entitled, “Ending violence against children through health systems strengthening and multi-sectoral approaches” sought to reach agreement on the actions that member states should take to address interpersonal violence, in particular against women and girls, and against children. The draft states, “violence affects an estimated 1 billion children with many early, acute and lifelong, intergenerational consequences on physical and mental health, risk-taking behaviours and overall quality of life, including mental health conditions, physical injuries, impairments and death.”

The resolution further emphasized the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children’ wellbeing, noting that school closures and the halting of protective services, deepening economic hardship, and increased burdens on households have “threatened multiple aspects of children’s physical, psychological, sexual and reproductive health.” In response to these ongoing, and worsening, forms of oppression and violence that children face around the world, the resolution proposed sixteen actions to be taken across social sectors.

Amongst the actions set out in the draft resolution, sexuality education was proposed as a measure to empower young people to have greater knowledge and power in relation to their health and well-being. According to the resolution, member states should:

…provide accessible gender-sensitive, free from gender stereotypes, evidence-based and appropriate to age and evolving capacities sexuality education to children, and with appropriate direction and guidance from parents and legal guardians, with the best interests of the child as their basic concern to empower and enable them to realize their health well-being and dignity, build communication, self-protection and risk reduction skills, as a fundamental part of the efforts to prevent, recognize and respond to violence against children.

In its mentioning of ‘sexuality’ education, rather than ‘sex’ education or ‘sexual health’ education, the resolution indicates that the curricula should not only focus on the biological aspects of sex, but should aim to empower young people and foster their dignity through a focus on well-being, communication, self-protection, and risk reduction.

The paragraph became a topic of intense debate between member states, who eventually voted to remove entirely, rather than amend, the recommendation. A reporter from Health Policy Watch who observed the virtual proceedings said that “heated discussion” had ensued in relation to the inclusion of sexuality education, with a number of representatives from African and the Middle Eastern member states expressing disagreement with the “inclusion of the term ‘sexuality education’ over ‘sex education’ for children.”

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According to Family Watch International, the group which later took credit for coordinating the effort to eliminate reference to ‘sexuality education’ from the draft resolution, the amendment was co-sponsored by the Russian Federation, Eswatini, Egypt, Mozambique, and Zambia. Notably, Eswatini and Mozambique were also co-sponsors of the original draft resolution, indicating that some last-minute decisions were made by their WHO delegates.

Earlier that day, FWI circulated an “alert” to its networks encouraging them to “pass this urgent information on to the person in your government handling WHA negotiations in Geneva”:

There are serious problems with the document on ending violence against children presently under the silent procedure until 2 pm today! The proposed draft has dangerous new language in the sex-ed para that is code for LGBT education. […] Of course if the term “sexuality education” is retained, then it will encompass LGBT elements anyway so it is vital that “sexuality education” be replaced with sex education, but better yet that the whole paragraph…be deleted!

This intervention, although rapidly organized, was not altogether spontaneous. Rather, the targeting and elimination of reference to sexuality education in the draft resolution was the product of an ongoing coordinated effort by Family Watch International, a U.S. based ‘pro-family’ advocacy group, to challenge and erode sexual and reproductive rights in several national and international political arenas.

Since its establishment in 1999, FWI has led the coordination of pro-family policy advocacy within the UN, and has taken a dedicated focus on African countries in her international activism. Prior to launching the campaign to ‘Stop Comprehensive Sexuality Education,’ Slater had established ties with African political and religious leaders who were vehemently opposed to homosexuality, including Martin Ssempa, who had proposed the notorious ‘kill the gays’ bill in Uganda in 2014.

The association between Slater and Ssempa was picked up in 2011 by a U.S. based LGBTIQ+ media monitoring group, Equality Matters, who found Ssempa listed as FWI’s African coordinator, and described as an “internationally renowned family activist.” In response to the accusation, Slater issued a press release in which she denied that FWI supported the Bill’s punishment of those with same-sex attraction. She also elaborated that Ssempa had been approached as the FWI Africa coordinator because he had been involved in the “youth abstinence movement” in Uganda, and “agreed to help coordinate FWI efforts to promote abstinence-based education in Africa.”

Although FWI is a small organization, and its online petitions remain far from their target number of signatories, it has had a profound effect on the political and discursive landscape around sexuality education in African contexts and in international political arenas. Through the use of several strategies geared towards the creation of African allies and networks in particular, FWI is fostering the growth of African Christian Right organizations and advocates who are impacting sexual and reproductive health, rights and education policy in African countries and also within international governance spaces, as demonstrated in the recent controversy that unfolded in relation to sexuality education at this year’s World Health Assembly.

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