Since its founding in 1945, the United Nations has proven to be a vital and vibrant forum to advance human rights. In recent decades, the UN has emerged as a key protector and promoter of gender equality, and specifically sexual and reproductive health and rights worldwide. The UN’s continued dedication to these issues reflects strong consensus among Member States about their importance, despite unrelenting attacks on reproductive freedom by governments and other actors that seek to turn back the clock. In the past year alone, IWHC’s advocacy with key UN bodies has resulted in a number of significant achievements that advance women’s and girls’ rights to abortion; to control their sexualities, bodies, and lives; and to access sexual and reproductive health services through universal health coverage programs.
Abortion Rights Are Human Rights
The UN Human Rights Committee, an independent human rights body that oversees implementation of an international treaty on civil and political rights, reasserted that access to legal abortion is essential to protect the right to life. The Committee’s general comment recognizes that restrictions on abortion lead to higher rates of unsafe abortion, placing lives at risk. It recommends that states remove policies that hinder abortion access, like those that result from the refusals of health workers to provide services on the basis of conscience, and remove laws that criminalize people who seek abortion and health workers who assist them. This recommendation is increasingly important as the United States continues to gut abortion rights and access in its domestic, foreign, and UN policies.
Momentum for Gender Equality Unstoppable
In the face of coordinated attacks led by the United States and its anti-rights allies, the UN Commission on the Status of Women—the largest annual gathering on women’s rights—produced Agreed Conclusions that reaffirmed global commitment to sexual and reproductive health and rights. The conclusions, which were reached by consensus, affirm that public services must consider the unique needs of women and girls and include universal access to sexual and reproductive health services, as well as ensure the protection of reproductive rights and the right of individuals to control their sexuality. The conclusions also upheld the right of young people to receive comprehensive sexuality education, and urged governments to establish gender-responsive universal health coverage.
No Universal Health Coverage Without Sexual and Reproductive Health
In September, UN Member States issued a political declaration to deliver universal health coverage (UHC) by 2030. The declaration included sexual and reproductive health and rights in its vision for health equity. This positive outcome was not preordained, but the result of relentless advocacy by the Alliance for Gender Equality and UHC—a diverse coalition of more than 100 organizations from over 45 countries led by IWHC, Women Deliver, and Women in Global Health—and a steadfast commitment to gender equality from countries like Australia, Canada, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. A handful of Member States, including the US, repeatedly stalled negotiations and sought to rehash settled debates on sexual and reproductive health. Despite the pressure, the outcome compels governments to integrate sexual and reproductive health services into national strategies and ensure that UHC addresses women’s and girls’ diverse needs.
For 35 years, IWHC, together with the global feminist movement, has worked tirelessly to influence UN negotiations and ensure that sexual and reproductive health and rights remain at the heart of efforts to achieve gender equality. As we commemorate UN Day, we celebrate our achievements and look to 2020—the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and adoption of the watershed Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action—as an opportunity to continue momentum.
Photo Credit: UN Women/Amanda Voisard