Defenders of Sexual and Reproductive Rights

10 November 2007

One of the most important fronts in the struggle for women's human rights is around sexual and reproductive autonomy, and the coercive and often violent ways in which that autonomy is suppressed.

Much of the gender-based violence that men inflict on women is aimed at restricting and controlling their sexuality and reproductive capacity: from so-called "honour killings" of women who've had sex outside marriage, to marital rape or the targeting of pregnant women of the "enemy" camp as a strategy of conflict. These and other sexual and reproductive rights violations are happening worldwide on a massive scale and are clearly proscribed under international law. Yet they are amongst the most challenging issues for human rights defenders to work on.

One key reason is the widespread deference to cultural and religious values when it comes to issues of sexuality and women's control over their reproductive choices. It is argued that what is considered socially acceptable in terms of sexual relations and family planning, depends to such a varying degree on cultural and religious attitudes in each context that an affirmative right to sexual and reproductive autonomy cannot be asserted as a universal right.

Such arguments are often based on a fixed and stereotypical view of "culture" or "tradition", which denies the variety and heterogeneity of opinion that can exist within one faith or cultural context. They also overlook the fact that societies of all faiths and none have targeted women's sexuality and reproductive autonomy as a key means of keeping them socially subordinate, and have turned a blind eye even to the most violent manifestations of this form of discrimination.

Changing attitudes

Over the last two decades, such attitudes have begun to change, thanks to steadfast campaigning, lobbying and advocacy by women human rights defenders. Their efforts to trace the links between sexuality, reproduction and gender-based violence and discrimination have been complemented by the work of:
  • defenders combating violations against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people
  • those working to halt abuses in the context of HIV/AIDS
  • activists concerned at the health and development implications of issues such as maternal mortality or lack of access to contraception.

A major achievement by this coalition of defenders has been getting the international community to affirm sexual and reproductive rights as human rights in UN declarations and consensus documents such as:
  • the Programme of Action adopted at the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development
  • the Beijing Platform for Action resulting from the UN World Conference on Women in 1995.

These instruments articulate in more detail what states must do to respect, protect and fulfil women's reproductive and sexual rights, and have since been complemented by the work of relevant UN expert bodies.

Such achievements have been matched at the regional and national level. For example, in December 2006, defenders celebrated the inclusion of provisions recognizing reproductive health and rights as fundamental rights in the interim Constitution of Nepal, a country in which more women are reported to have died due to pregnancy in the last decade than men and women due to the armed conflict.

However, defenders working at the domestic level have often faced fierce resistance, not only from officialdom, but from powerful political or religious institutions, the media or even from other sectors of the human rights movement.

As well as seeking to end police brutality, gender-based violence and other abuses, sexual and reproductive rights defenders are also affirming an emancipatory vision of human rights, one which sees bodily and sexual integrity as integral to human flourishing, well-being and dignity as freedom of conscience or belief.

How you can help