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Women’s Sexual And Reproductive Rights: The UN’s Unfinished Agenda

On October 19, 2023, the 30th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development Conference at Cairo, the UN Human Rights Chief Volker Türk termed its agenda of women’s sexual and reproductive health rights as ‘Unfinished’. The agenda for people-centred development idealised in 1994, stands at the face of ‘reversal’ some 30 years later according to the UNFPA. It is crucial to question, while the problems for global development goals were recognised ‘in time’, what is stopping development, or reversing it more so? 

What was the ICPD Programme of Action (PoA)?

In 1994, a group of 179 countries adopted the ICPD Programme of Action committing to inclusive sustainable development through the prioritisation of human rights. The PoA had significantly emphasised the need to “further sexual and reproductive rights of women, addressing gender inequalities, and the rights of individual women and men”. These areas were to guide national policies and governments to instigate change at the grassroots level.

Building on the international consensus achieved in 1974 at the World Population Conference, the PoA was a distinguished realisation of the rapidly growing world population and the interlinked micro- and macro-economic growth.

Why is the agenda unfinished?

The significance of advancements in gender equality, medical care, and the relative freedom of choice for women cannot go unstated. Maternal healthcare, reflected in terms of reduced deaths during pregnancy and childbirth, a fall of 34% from 2000 to 2020, has been one of the prominent factors advancing women’s safety and health security across the world. Further, measures for affordable and accessible healthcare for women and girls have been supported by international organisations such as the World Bank and Global Financing Facility across national governance systems.

Yet, the relative advancement must not overlook the absolute fulfilment of the agenda. Statistical evaluation simultaneously presents facts that reflect the socio-economic disparity in access itself. Interpretations of the PoA’s content can be made to reflect the positive and hinder the necessity of improvement. The World Bank’s tracing has revealed that over 99% of maternal deaths in 2020 occurred in low- and middle-income countries (including 72% in Sub-Saharan Africa and 16% in South Asia). Rising populations in these areas are likely to drive up the percentages of maternal mortality and point towards building sufficient state apparatus to keep up with the population’s needs.

It is imperative also to consider external factors surrounding women’s sexual and reproductive health rights. To argue its progress or regress, the nuances attached to its experience are elemental. For instance, an expression of opposition or the lack of adequate acceptance of the need for these rights prominently adds to the regression. To overcome what Türk called “patchy implementation”, consistent and standardised recognition of the rights in national policies and legal frameworks remains to be seen. Consistently, women’s and women’s movements are neglected, silenced, and popularly appropriated, furthering highly inflamed privileges in social legislation.

The policy space dictates the access to these rights where misogyny and toxic masculinity are heavily verbalised. Only seven countries in the world have an active law mandating the right to menstrual leave for all employees while five employees have tabled their bills. Further, several organisations offer unpaid menstrual leaves which contradict the inherent requirement of the leave and instil a sense of compulsion for women to ignore their health.

The specific geopolitical context in 2023 allowed Türk to address conflict and war-torn areas to add to the argument of incomplete implementation of the agenda. Significantly, the war in Gaza is also a landscape where health services for 50,000 pregnant women are under attack. He added the relevance of developing national healthcare in the context of earthquake-struck Afghanistan and war-torn Ukraine which require life-saving sexual and reproductive health services.

The UN news outlet added that an estimated 44% of women in 68 countries do not have the right to make decisions regarding their sexual health and family planning with their partners. A prominent example of this lack of freedom of choice is the decision for abortion services. The existence of 33 million unsafe abortions conducted yearly and the legal contest on women’s right to choose abortion for 753 million women of reproductive age around the world contributes to maternal mortality and health risks.

Is the agenda still relevant in the 2020s?

The agenda set at Cairo remains relevant more than ever. This recognition of unfinished implementation and a rather regressive attitude toward women’s sexual and reproductive rights by the UN Human Rights Chief provides prominence to the agenda in a wider socio-political space.

Still, in the 20 years since the ICPD Conference, recognition alone stands to bring no change. International organisations continue to ‘support’ national governments and activists continue to voice detrimental concerns, whereas a collective neglect for action remains. The UN Office aims to strengthen its efforts towards a global “human rights economy” without issuing steps of improvement. Globally, the relevance of the issue is increasing nevertheless that of the agents of its execution has begun to fall.

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