For women and girls, the right to control their own bodies and their sexuality without any form of discrimination, coercion, or violence is critical for their empowerment. Without sexual rights, they cannot realize their rights to self-determination and autonomy, nor can they control other aspects of their lives. Indeed it is the attempts to control women’s and girls’ sexuality that result in many of the human rights abuses they face on a daily basis, including gender-based violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and limitations on their mobility, dress, education, employment, and participation in public life. The same holds true for lesbians, gay men, bisexual people, transgender people, sex workers, and others who transgress sexual and gender norms and who face greater risk of violence, stigma, and discrimination as a result. It is clear: sexual rights underpin the enjoyment of all other human rights and are a prerequisite for equality and justice.

At the global level, there is great debate about whether or how to define sexual rights. IWHC believes in order to overcome some of the political barriers to the recognition, respect for, protection, and fulfillment of sexual rights we need to clarify what they are.

IWHC, in collaboration with other leading human rights and sexual health organizations, have developed the following working definition of sexual rights:

Sexual rights embrace certain human rights that are already recognized in national laws, international human rights documents, and other consensus documents. They rest on the recognition that all individuals have the right—free of coercion, violence, and discrimination of any kind—to the highest attainable standard of sexual health; to pursue a satisfying, safe, and pleasurable sexual life; to have control over and decide freely, and with due regard for the rights of others, on matters related to their sexuality, reproduction, sexual orientation, bodily integrity, choice of partner, and gender identity; and to the services, education, and information, including comprehensive sexuality education, necessary to do so.

Other definitions, such as the World Health Organization working definition, make the link between sexual rights and existing human rights that are critical to the realization of sexual health, and includes:

  • the rights to equality and non-discrimination;
  • the right to be free from torture or to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment;
  • the right to privacy;
  • the rights to the highest attainable standard of health (including sexual health);
  • the right to marry and to found a family and enter into marriage with free and full consent of the intending spouses, and to equality in and at the dissolution of marriage;
  • the right to decide the number and spacing of one’s children;
  • the rights to information and education;
  • the rights to freedom of opinion and expression; and
  • the right to an effective remedy for violations of fundamental rights.

Due to the hard-fought efforts of feminists, LGBTI groups, and sexual and reproductive health and rights organizations, an increasing number of governments have recognized the importance of sexual rights and put in place laws and policies to protect these rights at the country level. For example, in the last several years countries like Argentina have legalized marriage for same-sex couples; Uruguay legalized abortion without restriction through the 12th week of pregnancy; and Sweden repealed a law requiring transgender individuals to undergo sterilization.

At the regional level, sexual rights have been recognized in Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific, and in Africa. The ground-breaking Montevideo Consensus on Population and Development, adopted in August 2013, for example, committed to:

Promote policies that enable persons to exercise their sexual rights, which embrace the right to a safe and full sex life, as well as the right to take free, informed, voluntary and responsible decisions on their sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity, without coercion, discrimination or violence, and that guarantee the right to information and the means necessary for their sexual health and reproductive health.

Internationally, record numbers of countries are now actively advocating with their peers to ensure their recognition as human rights. For example, at the 58th Commission on the Status of Women in March 2014, country after country, including from the Global South, expressed disappointment on their ability to agree on sexual rights and their commitment to keep fighting for it. At the 47th Commission on Population and Development in April 2014, 59 countries voiced support for sexual rights during negotiations, and 58 governments signed on to a statement calling for sexual rights to be included in the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

There is undeniable momentum for the global sexual rights movement, but there is also considerable backlash. Conservative forces at the United Nations, often led by Iran and the Vatican, have worked to obstruct global recognition of sexual rights as human rights. At the country level, the opposition to sexual rights is even stronger. For example, Nigeria recently criminalized same-sex sexual relations and sanctioned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity; India’s High Court rolled back an earlier decision decriminalizing sodomy; and Spain’s ruling party was poised to further restrict access to abortion, but shelved its plans following widespread protest.

At this moment, 20 years after the landmark women’s rights conference in Beijing, it is essential that we cement the gains we have made and continue to advance the agenda. We cannot afford to go backward. IWHC and our partners will continue to fight for gender equality and ensure that women and girls have full control of their sexual and reproductive health and rights.