Visuals by: Anupal Deuri Bharali
“Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human right” -Hillary Clinton
Women are entitled to enjoy the same human rights and fundamental freedoms as other individuals. It is our responsibility to take proactive steps to ensure that women’s human rights are respected by law and to eliminate discrimination, inequalities, and practices that negatively affect women’s rights. Women’s human rights include the rights to equality, to dignity, autonomy, information and bodily integrity and respect for private life and the highest attainable standard of health, including sexual and reproductive health, without discrimination; as well as the right to freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
The right of a woman or girl to make autonomous decisions about her own body and reproductive functions is at the very core of her fundamental right to equality and privacy, concerning intimate matters of physical and psychological integrity. Equality in reproductive health includes access, without discrimination, to affordable, quality contraception, including emergency contraception. Countries where women have the right to termination of pregnancy and are provided with access to information and all methods of contraception have the lowest rates of termination of pregnancy. Unfortunately, according to WHO, an estimated 225 million women are deprived of access to essential modern contraception.
KEY WOMEN’S RIGHTS ISSUES
Despite States’ obligations under international law, women around the world continue to experience violations and abuses of their human rights. Some of the most harmful and prevalent abuses occur in the following areas: violence against women, reproductive health, participation in society and government, etc. In addition, the international community has also recognized the particular challenges faced by women who are human rights defenders.
Violence against women – particularly intimate partner violence and sexual violence – is a major public health problem and a violation of women’s human rights. Estimates published by WHO indicate that globally about 1 in 3 (30%) of women worldwide have been subjected to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. Most of this violence is intimate partner violence. Worldwide, almost one third (27%) of women aged 15-49 years who have been in a relationship report that they have been subjected to some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner. Violence negatively affects women’s physical, mental, sexual, and reproductive health, and may increase the risk of acquiring HIV in some settings.
Sexual and reproductive health is critical to a woman’s overall health and well-being. Violations of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights are often due to deeply ingrained beliefs and societal values pertaining to women’s sexuality. Patriarchal concepts of women’s roles within the family mean that women are often valued based on their ability to reproduce. Early marriage and pregnancy, or repeated pregnancies spaced too closely together—often as the result of efforts to produce male offspring because of the preference for sons—has a devastating impact on women’s health with sometimes fatal consequences. Women are also often blamed for infertility, suffering ostracism and being subjected to various human rights violations as a result.
Studies show higher numbers of women in parliament generally contribute to stronger attention to women’s issues. Women’s political participation is a fundamental prerequisite for gender equality and genuine democracy. It facilitates women’s direct engagement in public decision-making and is a means of ensuring better accountability to women. Political accountability to women begins with increasing the number of women in decision-making positions, but it cannot stop there. What is required are gender-sensitive governance reforms that will make all elected officials more effective at promoting gender equality in public policy and ensuring their implementation.
According to a new report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the vast majority of all human trafficking victims – some 71 per cent – are women and girls and one third are children. Human trafficking involves some form of forced or coerced sexual exploitation that is not limited to prostitution and has become a significant and growing problem in the larger global community. The costs to society include the degradation of human and women’s rights, poor public health, disrupted communities, and diminished social development. Victims of human trafficking acquire adverse physical and psychological health conditions and social disadvantages. Thus, sex trafficking is a critical health issue with broader social implications that requires both medical and legal attention.
The United Nations (UN) Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is the most comprehensive treaty on the rights of women. It condemns any form of discrimination against women and reaffirms the importance of guaranteeing equal political, economic, social, cultural and civil rights to women and men. CEDAW provides that there should be equal political, economic, social, cultural and civil rights for women, regardless of their marital status and requires States to enact national legislation banning discrimination. It permits States to take temporary special measures to accelerate the achievement of equality in practice between men and women, and to take actions to modify social and cultural patterns that perpetuate discrimination. States parties agree that contracts and other private instruments that restrict the legal capacity of women “shall be deemed null and void”. The Convention also addresses the need for equal access to education
CEDAW calls for non-discriminatory health services for women, including family planning services. Special attention is given to the problems faced by rural women, sexual trafficking of women, and other sexual exploitation of women.
ABORTION AND PREGNANCY
Abortion is a highly safe and reliable medical procedure when performed by skilled health care providers in unsanitary conditions. In contrast, “illegal” abortions, performed without safeguards, are generally unsafe and lead to high rates of complications and to maternal deaths and morbidity. Some 47,000 women die each year as a result of unsafe abortions, which also cause some form of disability to an additional five million women. Estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO) confirm that the legal status of abortion does not correlate to the number of induced abortions, as women will seek abortion regardless of its legal status and lawful availability.
Given the well-documented impact of unsafe abortion on maternal mortality and morbidity, the availability of safe, legal and effective access to abortion on broad socioeconomic grounds is critical to women’s and girls’ enjoyment of their human rights, including in particular, to health and bodily autonomy and – even more fundamentally – to their right to life. The decision as to whether to continue a pregnancy or terminate it, is fundamentally and primarily the woman’s decision, as it may shape her whole future personal life as well as family life and has a crucial impact on women’s enjoyment of other human rights. Accordingly, and following the good practice of many countries, it is being further encouraged to allow women to terminate a pregnancy on request during the first trimester.
Regulation of the medical procedure for termination of pregnancy after the first trimester may provide a balance between the human rights of the pregnant woman and societal interest in discouraging termination where the pregnancy is more advanced, which involves a more complex medical procedure for the woman, and a more fully developed foetus. Though there should never be criminalization of termination of pregnancy, termination after the first trimester may be subject to the need to make room for greater societal interest in the process of gestation and may hence be regulated in the health system, as regards the procedures for accessing medical services.
Struggles over women’s rights to sexual and reproductive health have been central in advancing women’s human rights in general. Advocates of women’s human rights have drawn attention to the ways in which women’s status is fundamentally linked with the reduction of women, through social and political processes, to aspects of their physical selves. When reproductive health is understood to involve more than just the biological workings of a woman’s womb, we arrive at “women-centred” approaches to sexual and reproductive health. This means trusting women as autonomous beings, able to take control over their sexual and reproductive lives and to make decisions on these matters on the basis of access to adequate information. A woman’s right to reproductive autonomy is often impaired because of her status in society. Enjoyment of this right depends on her right to act as an independent adult of full legal capacity to participate in civil society and to be free from discrimination in its various forms. Conversely, without the right of reproductive choice, all other human rights – civil and political, economic and social – have only limited power to advance the well-being of women.
Human rights are aspirations to full participation, equal membership and active involvement in society. Rights structure relationships of power, responsibility, trust and obligation. Rights empower people. They make us aware of our own power and of our responsibility to others less fortunate than us, especially to persons in the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups and situations. When we look around us and listen to the stories people tell, we learn ways in which we can exercise our own power and position to improve a lot of others. Thus human rights to sexual and reproductive health are pertinent in diverse ways to policymakers, program designers, and providers.