Seventy-three years ago, delegates from around the world gathered in San Francisco to sign the Charter of the United Nations (UN) in an attempt “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in equal rights of men and women.” Officially ratified on October 24, 1945, the Charter laid the foundations for a truly multilateral body.
Today, the UN remains the centerpiece of the international system, and a key site for advancing women’s rights. This year alone, advocates and decision-makers achieved major victories for women, girls, and young people. From affirming the importance of sexuality education, to centering the needs of women and girls living in rural areas, here are the key moments that marked 2018 as a critical year for sexual and reproductive rights at the UN. With almost 35 years of experience working to influence UN negotiations, the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC), together with a vast network of partners, has been part of these achievements.
New Sexuality Education Guidance
For the first time in a decade, the United Nations Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UN Women, UNAIDS, and the World Health Organization (WHO), updated their International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education. The updated guidance stresses the need for sexuality education programs grounded in human rights principles and scientific evidence.
The Guidance presents crucial new evidence in favor of programs that focus on gender norms and power, offers a positive approach to sexuality, and, critically, delves more deeply into gender-based violence.
All young people need access to accurate, nonjudgmental information about their bodies and health. IWHC’s grantee partners from Cameroon, India, Peru, and elsewhere are putting the Guidance’s approaches into action, ensuring that children and adolescents everywhere can realize their sexual and reproductive rights.
Read our analysis of the updated International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education.
Countries Commit to the Fight for Women’s Rights
In March, thousands of government leaders, policymakers, and women’s rights experts participated in the 62nd Commission on the Status of Women, the largest annual UN gathering dedicated to advancing gender equality. The Commission has a long history of delivering for women’s rights, and played a leading role in monitoring and reviewing the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which affirms a woman’s right to control her own sexuality.
The 2018 theme of the Commission—“Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls”—opened the door to a nuanced conversation on the specific barriers that women and girls in rural areas face when accessing sexual and reproductive health services. Negotiations concluded on a high note, with strong, concrete commitments to address issues such as discrimination in reproductive health care and social norms that contribute to child, early, and forced marriage. With stronger language than previously articulated, governments also committed to counter violence against and protect women human rights defenders.
Treaty Monitoring Bodies Stand Up for Reproductive Rights
The UN’s 10 human rights treaty bodies are responsible for monitoring, and issuing guidance, on core human rights instruments, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These bodies of independent experts routinely defend and issue guidance to advance sexual and reproductive rights.
In 2018, the CEDAW Committee and the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities issued a joint statement calling on states to ensure accessibility to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services for all people. Crucially, the statement condemned anti-choice efforts to restrict and/or prohibit women’s rights under the guise of protecting the rights of people with disabilities, and stressed the need to decriminalize abortion in all circumstances. It additionally argued for a human rights approach to sexual and reproductive health that prioritizes the autonomy of all women, including those with disabilities.
The treaty monitoring bodies have recommended the decriminalization of abortion as a key step to achieve women’s human rights. In fact, the Human Rights Committee played a supportive role in Ireland’s landmark 2018 referendum that decriminalized abortion, providing Irish women’s activists with the backing of an international human rights body in their struggle for reproductive rights. In 2016, the Human Rights Committee ruled that Ireland’s abortion laws “subjected women to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” This breakthrough case was the first time that an international human rights body, ruling on an individual case, clearly stated that the criminalization of abortion is a violation of women’s fundamental human rights. In June 2017, the Human Rights Committee issued a ruling in a second case, again stating that Ireland’s prohibition and criminalization of abortion violated women’s rights. In its decision, the Human Rights Committee called on Ireland to change its laws in alignment with international human rights.
From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, to conferences in Cairo (1994) and Beijing (1995), which produced breakthroughs in sexual and reproductive rights, to the Sustainable Development Goals (2015), the UN has championed universal human rights, across cultures and borders. Today, in spite of rising threats to global cooperation and dialogue, diplomats, decision-makers, and civil society groups continue to advance the ideals set down in the UN Charter. The achievements of the past year are not only proof of the power of collective action, but also a testament to the enduring strength of the women’s movement in using the UN and its bodies to push for normative change.
Photo: UN Women / Ryan Brown