The sixth Women Deliver conference (WD2023), which took place in Rwanda from July 17-20, billed itself as the largest gathering worldwide on the health, rights, and wellbeing of girls and women. Held in Africa for the first time, WD2023 brought together over 6,000 activists, NGO leaders, researchers, government officials, donors, business persons and young people, including adolescent girls—all of whom had made the trip to Kigali to further gender equality and human rights.
Going into WD2023, the excitement and determination were palpable. The large number of African feminists made the conference a vibrant opportunity to learn from those whose experience is not sufficiently reflected in global debates and solutions. I personally was delighted to reconnect with many old friends—finally, in-person, post-COVID—and to meet many brilliant young feminists, who brought their creativity, energy and commitment to the discussions.
I had qualms about Rwanda as a host country. Rwanda is rightly praised for having 61.3% of women in Parliament, and 55% in the cabinet of Ministers. As a result, women have broken the gender barrier in many professions and are working as airline pilots, masons, carpenters, surgeons and truck drivers. My taxi driver in Kigali was a woman working for herself, in a job that used to be hostile to women. Childcare centers (although staffed by volunteers so far) have opened across the country to facilitate young mothers’ re-entry into the workforce, and direct support to female-headed households remains a government priority.
Rwanda is also much admired worldwide for engaging in (some would say enforcing) national reconciliation and for rebuilding after the terrifying 1994 genocide. Kigali is a clean, green, safe, pleasant and orderly city, and the country is developing its tech sector. Rwanda is currently a darling of international aid donors and particularly the US government, who have sought to atone for their inaction in 1994.
But President Paul Kagame, 65, who has been in power since 2000, is an autocrat. His government keeps tight control over government, politics, the media and civil society. Kagame will likely be President for life, as the Rwandan Constitution was amended in 2015 to eliminate Presidential term limits. Some of this control was arguably justified in the aftermath of 1994, and perhaps even today. But it doesn’t justify the Rwanda-backed armed militias that destabilize its neighbor the Democratic Republic of Congo, the assassination of political opponents abroad—which Kagame appears to have publicly admitted to—the closure of human rights groups and the censorship of media. Not a single Rwandan activist or journalist I spoke to at WD2023 was willing to say anything remotely critical of their government.
Fortunately, the current geo-political backlash against democracy, human rights and gender equality featured prominently on the conference's agenda. At the official press conference before the opening, the Board Chair of Women Deliver and former Deputy President of South Africa, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, spoke eloquently about the impossibility of achieving gender and racial equality without open democracies. Helen Clark, a former Prime Minister of New Zealand, denounced the growing influence of the global anti-rights movement, “Let’s face it, it’s had voice and power all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States of America and legislatures in the country, through to the Parliament of Uganda cracking down on LGBTQI+ rights, or Russia banning gender reassignment surgery.” Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, mentioned Rwanda's checkered record on human rights.
Against this promising backdrop, it was shocking to see WD2023 participants subjected to an opening ceremony on “the state of women’s equality today” that featured the unannounced participation of the President of Hungary, Katalin Novák, a leader of far-right forces in Europe and beyond. Many of those present had no idea who Novák is and what she represents, but those who did could hardly believe their ears and eyes. Marie Lussier, advocacy officer at Médecins du Monde in Paris, told me she and her colleagues walked out of the ceremony “dazed, stunned, in a surrealistic moment.” I was horrified and angry. What was going on?! Who had invited her, and for what purpose?
To fully understand the danger, let me outline President Novák's far-right credentials, and what Hungary stands for today. Novák, 45, began her career as a diplomat in Hungary’s Foreign Ministry. Over the years, she has steadily risen through the ranks of Fidesz, the ultra-nationalist and authoritarian political party led by Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s Prime Minister since 2010.
Since he came to power, Orbán has systematically gutted Hungary’s democratic institutions. He has compromised judicial independence, including by stacking the Constitutional Court with Fidesz loyalists. He has endangered freedom of the press by taking control of state media, building his own media empire, and putting the remaining independent media under political, economic and regulatory pressure. In 2020, the Economist Intelligence Unit rated Hungary a "flawed democracy,” while Freedom House no longer considers Hungary a democracy.
Fidesz has spewed antisemitic lies against philanthropist George Soros and his work to promote democracy and human rights in Hungary (his native country). The party claims to defend “Europe’s Christian values” by actively opposing abortion, LGBTQ rights, and immigration. Orbán has sparred continually with the EU over these developments. As WD2023 was unfolding in Kigali, Orbán was in Romania, lashing out at Brussels for its “LGBTQ offensive” and for rejecting Europe’s “Christian heritage” by promoting immigration.
In 2014, Novák was appointed State Secretary for Family and Youth Affairs. In that role, she hosted the 2017 Budapest Family Summit — a four-day international event that encompassed the annual far-right World Congress of Families (WCF), where Russia plays a key role, and the One of Us forum of European anti-abortion organizations. She also represented Hungary in negotiations on social policy at the UN and European Commission. In a 2020 interview, she made her position clear: “I’ve been taking part in arguments [with the European Commission] for seven years now, and I could endlessly recite those documents with an undercurrent of gender ideology, which they want to force on us. Naturally, in these wars of ideas we need allies.”
Which allies? Novák is known to have ties with the Russian far-right. A 2021 report by investigative journalists at VSquare documented those contacts. In the report, Rémy Bonny, a Belgian political scientist and LGBTQI activist, explained that “Russia’s international fight against LGBTQI rights is an inherent part of its strategy to undermine the European Union’s liberal democracy. Through international homophobic networks, Russian intelligence made contacts with Hungarian government representatives. Since then, LGBTQI rights in Hungary have been going backwards, and the country has been vetoing the evolution of LGBTQI rights at the EU level. Hungary’s contacts with Russia endanger its (and the EU’s) national security.”
Novák was elected to Parliament in 2018, becoming Minister of Family Affairs from 2020 to 2021. As a member of Parliament, Novák voted against Hungary joining the Istanbul Convention on Violence Against Women, the Council of Europe’s primary treaty on this issue. While Minister of Family Affairs, Novák declared that women should be content to earn less and hold lower positions than men, and that “Christianity is Europe’s and Hungary’s destiny.”
During her time in Parliament, Novák also headed the Political Network for Values (PNfV), an organization based in Spain that equips right-wing politicians in Europe and the Americas with electoral strategies grounded in anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ and anti-feminist views. PNfV’s Board of Directors is chaired by José Antonio Kast, founder of the far-right Republican Party of Chile, and features the notorious Sharon Slater of US Christian group Family Watch International (designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center). PNfV’s Advisory Board includes notable right-wing political figures such as Angela Gandra, former Secretary for the Family in Jair Bolsonaro’s government in Brazil, while Elyssa Koren of Alliance Defending Freedom, the Christian legal group involved in the Dobbs case that overturned the right to abortion in the US, sits on PNfV’s Council of Experts. Novák hosted PNfV’s 4th Transatlantic Summit in Budapest in May 2022.
Continuing her ascension, Novák was voted President of Hungary by Parliament in 2022. In her first speech in that capacity, she “asked for God’s help and promised to be a good head of state who defends the family as the basis of sovereignty.” She is the real, far-right deal.
But that's not all. In 2020, Hungary banned adoption by same-sex couples and barred transgender people from changing their legal gender on identity papers. At the same time, the Constitution of Hungary was amended to define marriage as between a man and a woman. In 2021, Hungary’s Parliament passed a law that equates homosexuality with pedophilia and forbids the sharing with minors of information promoting or portraying “divergence from self-identity corresponding to sex at birth, sex change or homosexuality.” The law also banned LGBTQ topics from daytime television and prohibited companies from running campaigns of solidarity with the LGBTQ community (it makes you think of the MAGA campaign against Bud Light in the US, doesn’t it? Same playbook). Novák voted for that law.
Enforcement of the 2021 anti-LGBTQ law by the Hungarian government is now ramping up. Bookshops Lira and Libri have recently been hit with fines for selling books that the government says “promote homosexuality” to young people. In early July 2023, just before Novák arrived in Kigali, Lira was fined $36,000 because it displayed “Heartstopper,” a teen romance between two high school boys.
Fifteen EU members, the European Commission and the European Parliament have challenged the 2021 anti-LGBTQ law’s validity before the European Court of Justice. But that did not stop Fidesz, which earlier this year tabled a whistleblowing bill that would have allowed anonymous reporting of violations of the “Hungarian way of life,” including violations of the “constitutionally recognized role of marriage and family” or the “right of children to identify him/herself with their birth gender.” Critics noted this could have led to the denunciation of same-sex parents raising their own children. Surprisingly, in April 2023, Novák vetoed the whistleblowing bill, arguing that it didn’t meet EU standards. Commentators argued this might have been a tactical move to position Novák as a more presentable face of Fidesz. (The law was finally adopted without the “Hungarian way of life” provisions).
And Novák is very skilled and polished: knowing full well she was at a gender equality conference, she got her first applause in Kigali by noting that she is “the first woman President of [her] country.” She made several statements that no feminist would find objectionable: that “we need more women in public life,” and that, as a young diplomat, she wondered whether she would also “be able to fulfill [her] dream of becoming a mother.” Who can disagree with that?
But, of all the issues facing women and girls in Hungary, Novák focused her WD2023 remarks almost exclusively on the demographic question. Her 15-year old daughter should be able to fulfill her professional dreams, Novák said with a broad smile, even “if she want[ed] to have ten children.” Repurposing feminist terminology, Novák argued that having “as many children as they want” was women’s “real freedom of choice.” She then dropped the mask: “Can you imagine that no European country reaches the [replacement] fertility rate of two [children]? This means we are practically committing suicide, we are just going down that slope. Hungary has lost 10 percent of its population in the last decades because of low fertility.” Given her staunch anti-immigration, anti-Muslim stance and the mounting deaths of migrants trying to reach Europe, it was particularly chilling to hear Novák say this in Africa.
Novák then touted her 8-year stint in family affairs as having raised Hungary’s fertility rate by 25% over ten years (it’s still only 1.56 children per woman), with the number of marriages doubling (imagine if they allowed same-sex marriage!). Mothers of four children or more, she noted, are now exempt from personal income tax for life (never mind that these overburdened women are hardly likely to earn vast sums of money). Moderator Femi Oke, an experienced broadcaster, asked no follow-up questions. Novák’s office immediately produced two slick videos and several tweets featuring her on the WD2023 stage as a global champion of women.
In a letter to Women Deliver later that week, 131 feminist groups and 140 activists from around the world declared themselves “stunned and angry” that Novák had been given this platform. WD2023 organizers issued a press release where they claimed to have had little control over the opening ceremony. It was apparently the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, who had invited Novák to speak—and who had also invited the President of Senegal, Macky Sall, and the President of Ethiopia, Sahle-Work Zewde.
Maliha Khan, the CEO of Women Deliver, added that “President Novak’s views on gender equality, inclusion, and sexual and reproductive health and rights are in no way aligned to the views of Women Deliver, so I am glad that there is a backlash.” Yet, Lussier noted, at no point did Women Deliver alert feminist groups of Novák’s planned participation to allow them to educate and organize those present. Nor, as Hungarian feminists who wrote to Khan to express their disappointment pointed out, was Novák challenged on Hungary’s human rights record on stage during the event. My heart went out to these brave Hungarian activists as I read their letter: “We have been working on the frontline fighting the anti-rights movements in our country in a very difficult and complicated political context for several years. We expected to arrive into a safe space with shared values and commitments. Yesterday, we were relying on the power and solidarity of Women Deliver. Instead, we felt we were left behind and forgotten.”
Novák’s high profile role at a private conference advertized as a space of solidarity and convergence was certainly shocking. WD2023 was not a UN meeting where all countries share the podium no matter their record on human rights. But Novák’s star turn should be understood as more than a blunder on the part of WD2023 organizers: it was an opportunity for Novák to normalize extremist anti-gender, anti-democracy views, precisely by featuring them prominently within a space meant to advance women’s rights. An opportunity far-right forces had clearly planned for.
Neil Datta, the Executive Director of the European Parliamentary Forum, which closely tracks far-right activities, said it best at a WD2023 plenary the next day when asked about the risk this movement poses: “This is not traditional social conservatism. This is an entirely new phenomenon, a professional, transnational movement, active at all levels against rights and equality. And there she was, right in our midst.”
Exactly. If the opposition are everywhere, if nowhere is safe, then why continue the struggle? This kind of tactic is meant to disarm, destabilize and discourage feminists, who remain one of the major forces against anti-democratic, far-right actors.
Why then did President Kagame take the step of placing Novák at the heart of this conference? Novák was not in Kigali just for WD2023. She was on an official visit to Rwanda, a “historic” first visit by a President of Hungary to that country. Hungary and Rwanda signed three cooperation agreements as a result of the visit – on scholarships, nuclear education and water technology. At the end of her trip, President Kagame announced that Rwanda would soon establish diplomatic representation in Hungary, and Novák invited him to the 5th Budapest Demographic Summit (another confab of the far-right) in September 2023. Novák then travelled to Tanzania for a second official visit, where she signed another cooperation agreement. Clearly, Europe’s far-right has decided to intensify its relationship with sub-Saharan Africa, and this obviously suited Kagame.
I was also taken aback by Kagame’s invitation to Senegal’s Macky Sall. Sall, 61, had, until early July 2023, dangled the possibility that he would seek an unconstitutional third term in office, fueling months-long protests. He has also sought to disqualify his opponents from running for office. More than 500 protesters are currently in jail, and dozens have been killed by the military.
And unlike Kagame, Sall is not known for his record on women's rights. Revered Senegalese feminist academic Fatou Sow told me from Dakar that “Sall came [to WD2023] because of Kagame. He wanted to hang around Kagame, who is the cool guy many African leaders admire. Sall doesn’t give a fig about women’s rights!” And sure enough: on stage at WD2023, Sall did not make important commitments, but instead praised Senegal’s 50-year old Family Code, which remains chock full of provisions that discriminate against women. Only in 2020 were rape and pedophilia criminalized in Senegal, after several highly-publicized murders of women revulsed public opinion. Forced marriages, child marriages and female genital cutting remain common practices across the country. Abortion is still criminalized although Senegal ratified the 2004 Maputo Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa (its article 14 provides for a right to abortion in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest, and danger to the life, mental or physical health of the woman). More than 50 Senegalese women are currently in jail for “infanticide” and illegal abortion.
For his entire 11-year tenure, and despite pre-Presidency comments that suggested he’d be a more open leader, Sall has defended Senegal’s criminalization of “unnatural acts.” He recently expressed public support for a Senegalese football star who objected to the display of Pride flags during a game. Not surprisingly, attacks against Senegal’s LGBTQI community have increased over the last decade.
Last year, Senegal signed on to the Geneva Consensus, the anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQI alliance of 30+ governments that was launched in 2020 by the Trump Administration. And surprise, surprise! Hungary currently presides the Geneva Consensus, after the US and Brazil pulled out following the elections of Biden and Lula respectively. It was worrisome to watch Sall and Novák together on that stage.
In that context, African countries' evolving relationship with Russia is worth watching. Russia has, in recent years, tried to reactivate its influence on the continent. In 2019, President Putin organized a first Russia-Africa Summit, which 43 African heads of state attended. With anti-colonial ties forged in Soviet times, many of them had maintained privileged diplomatic relationships with Russia and a posture of relative non-alignment with the West. Ominously, Russian mercenary group Wagner is thought to have been involved in recent military coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and now Niger, and is active in Sudan, Libya and the Central African Republic.
The 2022 invasion of Ukraine put African countries in a tricky position. In March 2022, 17 African countries abstained from the UN General Assembly vote condemning the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. But African populations face serious hardship as a result of Russia’s reneging on the UN-brokered Ukraine grain deal, with food supplies in danger and fuel prices rising.
Trying to thread that needle, Sall visited Moscow in June 2022 as Chair of the African Union, where he called for an end to the war—although without singling out Russia. He visited Ukraine and Russia in June 2023 as part of an African leaders’ delegation, and was again in St. Petersburg just a few days ago, on July 27-28, 2023, for the second Russia-Africa Summit. Only 17 African heads of state are said to have attended this latest Summit. In an effort at damage control, Putin promised special grain deliveries to six of the African countries present at the Summit. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the commander of Wagner who was supposedly in exile in Belarus (but has apparently reconciled with Putin), made a surprise appearance on the margins of the Summit to greet his African clients.
Russia has sought to find additional areas of common ground with African leaders. Over the last decade, Putin has repeatedly and increasingly denounced “gender ideology” (which he equates with sexual and reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights and gender justice), while his close ally Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has justified the invasion of Ukraine as a civilizational battle against the Western values of those who hold gay pride parades. The African sub-continent is a space of rapidly increasing activity by anti-gender actors from Europe and the US, and francophone Africa, which has remained isolated for various reasons, presents new opportunities for these groups. As the 2023 Russia-Africa Summit came to a close, Putin explicitly denounced “the gender agenda” and sought to “portray Russia as a spiritual ally of Africa — as a bastion of conservative values, in contrast to a godless West.”
Was Kigali the moment when the European far-right, anti-gender movement succeeded in deepening its engagement with key African leaders like Kagame? Will more African countries join the Geneva Consensus, or adopt anti-LGBTQ laws? Will new alliances emerge at the Budapest Demographic Summit in September 2023, or when PNfV hosts its 5th Transatlantic Summit at UN headquarters in New York in November 2023? We will soon see.
In feminist solidarity, determination and self-care,
NB: FMUS will take the month of August off for much deserved rest. I will be back in September!