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Changes made to athat stripped out mention of women’s rights were classed as “minor” by the UK government.
i reported last week that commitments to women’s reproductive and sexual health rights had been quietly removed from a statement published on the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) website.
The original statement, which included references to “sexual and reproductive health and rights” and “bodily autonomy”, was released in early July. Around one week later, it had been reuploaded with the references removed.
Despite repeated requests from i, the Government has refused to explain why it failed to make the changes clear on its website. Typically, when a statement or web page is changed on, it is added to the changelog at the bottom of the page and the date at the top is changed to the date it was last edited.
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There is no such notification on the web page because the person who edited the statement specified the change as “minor”, a specification usually reserved for typos. The change did therefore not show up on the edit history of the page and users following the page was not notified of any amendments.
What the FCDO statement said before:
“Uphold and protect gender equality, non-discrimination and freedom of religion or belief. Discriminatory personal status laws, laws that allow harmful practices, or restrict women’s and girls’ full and equal enjoyment of all human rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights, bodily autonomy, and other laws that justify, condone, or reinforce violence, discrimination, or inequalities on the grounds of religion, belief or gender should be repealed.”
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What the FCDO statement says now:
“Uphold and protect gender equality, non-discrimination and freedom of religion or belief. Challenge discriminatory laws that justify, condone, or reinforce violence, discrimination, or inequalities on the grounds of religion, belief or gender and that restrict women and girls’ full and equal enjoyment of human rights.”
When i asked the FCDO why the changes made to the FoRB statement were considered minor and why the published date was not amended, the department responded with an existing statement.
“We amended the statement we made at the International Ministerial Conference to address a perceived ambiguity in the wording,” it said.
“The UK remains committed to defending universal access to comprehensive Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR), and will continue working with other countries to protect gender equality in international agreements.”
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Humanists UK first spotted the changes to the statement. The charity’s director of public affairs and policy Richy Thompson said: “If it was not an error but a deliberate attempt to stop the changes from being noticed, then it was never going to work – the disappearance of [multiple] signatories was glaring. Also, we noticed the statement go down on the 13 July, asked FCDO why, and were told it was being revised.”
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health said: “We are alarmed by the removal of references to ‘sexual and reproductive health and rights’ and ‘bodily autonomy’ from the multinational statement on freedom of religion or belief and gender equality.
“These rights are fundamental to the physical, psychological and social wellbeing of women around the globe.
“The unexplained removal of these terms sends a worrying message about woman’s reproductive rights, especially at a time of deep concern for the future of women’s abortion rights in the US.
“We call on the UK Government to explain why these revisions have been made and to stand in solidarity with women by reversing them as a matter of urgency.”
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Theon 5 July and coincided with the London 2022 International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), hosted by the UK Government.
It was later taken down and reappeared around one week later with references to repealing discriminatory laws that threaten women’s “sexual and reproductive health and rights” and “bodily autonomy” struck out, leading to concern about the government’s position on women’s rights.
The FCDO did register a single change on 7 July – two days after publication – to show the list of countries that signed the statement during the conference. Initially 22 countries supported the statement but now only eight countries are listed.
Malta, which has strict abortion laws, did not sign the original statement but is a signatory to the new version.
Substantial changes were made to the statement between 10 July and 22 July but the latest version of the statement on the FCDO website continues to say it was updated on 7 July.
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