Thursday, 19 October 2023 19:26

Women’s sexual and reproductive rights an ‘unfinished agenda’

UNFPA
Gambian schoolgirls learn about reproductive and menstrual health

UN human rights chief Volker Türk on Thursday called for progress on the ‘unfinished agenda’ of women’s sexual and reproductive health rights at an event in Geneva to mark the 30th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD).

Countries attending the landmark Conference, held in Cairo, agreed a Programme of Action which promised that women and girls must have the power to make decisions about their own lives, their bodies and their futures.

Mr. Türk commended the “leaps” made during the past three decades which include a reduction in deaths during pregnancy, and “substantial investments” in healthcare, education and social services. Many people are also living longer, healthier lives.

“But this is an unfinished agenda,” he said. “Alongside the progress, we have seen regression.”

Backlash and toxic masculinity

Mr. Türk pointed to “patchy implementation” of the principles laid out in the Programme of Action in many parts of the world.

“Gender equality backlash is spreading, denying women and girls autonomy, the capacity to choose their futures or their roles within families and households, and silencing their voices,” he said. “Toxic masculinity – and misogyny – have inflamed and normalised hate.”

Additionally, COVID-19, conflict and economic downturns have also disproportionately affected women and girls. Meanwhile, “babies don’t stop being born during conflict or disaster, and people still get pregnant.”

Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza. WHO warns that hospitals in the Gaza Strip are at a breaking point.
WHO/Occupied Palestinian Territory
Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza. WHO warns that hospitals in the Gaza Strip are at a breaking point.

Pregnancy under fire

Today, roughly 50,000 women are pregnant in Gaza, where health services are currently under attack.

The earthquake in western Afghanistan this month has rendered pregnant women there even more vulnerable, while women and girls in Ukraine still need access to life-saving sexual and reproductive health services.

Furthermore, in 68 countries, an estimated 44 per cent of women who are married or partnered do not have the ability to make their own decisions on sexual relations, use of contraceptives, and healthcare.

“Women’s right to decide — free of discrimination, coercion and violence — if and when to have children, how many and with whom, needs to be guaranteed,” he said.

“This is all the more the case as progress on maternal mortality has stagnated in the last decade. Every two minutes, a woman will die due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth.”

Against unsafe abortion

He remarked that “perhaps nowhere is a woman’s autonomy and ability to make her own choices about her body and life more hotly contested than when she seeks to access safe abortion services.”

Roughly 33 million unsafe abortions are conducted globally each year, he said, and it is one of the leading causes of maternal mortality. He welcomed action by many countries in the last five years to liberalize legislation, whether through decriminalization, expanding legal grounds for it, or removing access barriers.

Keep Cairo promise

Mr. Türk said human rights reversals of all kinds are accelerating around the globe, putting countries offtrack to achieve sustainable development and the ICPD Programme of Action, but it is not too late to course correct.

His Office is working with States to bolster their efforts towards “a human rights economy”, which puts people and the planet at the heart of all policies, plans and programmes.

“To change lives, and to save lives, we need to ensure the fundamentals promised in Cairo thirty years ago are upheld – for all women and girls, no matter their age, their migration status, or any other factor,” he said.

He outlined what they need, namely comprehensive sexuality education; access to modern forms of contraception, including emergency contraception; access to quality sexual and reproductive health services, including safe and timely abortion services and maternal and newborn care, and the freedom to make their own choices.