This blog was originally published on Trust.org on March 5, 2015.
Twenty years ago, 189 governments made history in Beijing by committing to a bold, progressive platform for women’s human rights and equality. It seemed like the beginning of a new era. When First Lady Hillary Clinton stood before 17,000 government delegates and activists and fiercely proclaimed, “Let it be that human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all,” women around the world felt energized.
While we have cause to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Beijing, we still have a long way to go to fully realize its promise. Inequality persists at many levels around the world and the idea that women and girls should be able to control their sexuality and reproduction is still challenged by conservative elements, even in so-called “progressive” or developed countries. As a result, women and girls face significant obstacles to achieving their full potential.
There is no magic bullet that will bring justice and equality to women and girls. We need action on many fronts: investments in girls’ education and health, decent jobs, a fairer distribution of resources, and greater commitments to preventing gender-based violence. No doubt we have made advances, with some efforts more successful than others. Maternal deaths, for example, have been reduced by 45% since 1990. Ten million people are still alive because they are on HIV treatment. These are no small feats. And there are other examples that suggest significant and swift change is possible.
That is why women’s organizations around the world have paid such close attention to the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will set the global development agenda for the next 15 years. Women’s groups have successfully pressed governments to include a dedicated goal on gender equality, as well as targets to ensure reproductive rights, universal access to family planning, elimination of child marriage and female genital mutilation, and eradication of all forms of violence against women and girls.
Those of us who have been working for years to ensure the rights of women and girls are a priority for governments and donors, know how crucial it is to set a bold agenda on all of these fronts.
Yet, what is still fundamentally missing from the SDGs—even though it was included in the Beijing Platform 20 years ago—is the notion that women should be able to have control over all aspects of their sexuality. Also missing is a commitment to provide young boys and girls with comprehensive sexuality education that addresses harmful gender norms. While 58 governments—from Brazil to South Africa to the Philippines—fought to include “sexual rights” in the SDGs, they were unsuccessful. Perhaps most disconcerting is the posture of the United States, a stalwart leader during the Beijing negotiations on the right of women to control their sexuality. It has, inexplicably, failed to join the call for sexual rights 20 years later.
Determining what happens with one’s own body is the most basic of human rights. Countries like the United States should be leading the way in this fight not thwarting these efforts. It’s time we stop shying away from the fact that sexual rights are human rights.