Tackling Sexual Health and Reproductive Rights at the U.N.

6365386329_f24a5e7976_zNegotiations for a sustainable global development agenda came to a close in 2015 at the United Nations. Despite political and economic differences, countries rallied to support the resulting Sustainable Development Goals of 2030 (SDGs). On paper, Agenda 2030 offers significant gains for women and girls—provided the 17 goals and 169 targets are fully implemented.

During negotiations, U.N. Member States repeatedly asserted the importance of outlining universal goals and leaving no nation behind. They said that all countries—rich and poor, developing and developed—should stand together to eradicate poverty. The agenda’s opening declaration leaves no doubt that the goals are global and universal and that all countries, including the United States, must work toward implementation. The final goals are challenging, but they also come with opportunities—especially for sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).

One challenge is that the global gender landscape is diverse. For example, it is often asserted that universal access to reproductive health is no longer an issue in most developed countries, only in the poorer developing world. The truth is that the problems there are just more obvious. According to the World Health Organization, 830 women die every day from pregnancy or childbirth complications, nearly all in developing countries. Moreover, most working women are either underemployed or working in the informal economy. The World Bank reported in 2014 that boys still take priority over girls in education: in Africa and South Asia, they are 1.55 times more likely than girls to complete secondary school. Women and girls often do not have inheritance rights, and forced marriages are still a reality.

So it is true that sexual health challenges face all women in poor countries. But poor women in all countries are also affected. In the United States and the European community, for example, sharp differences still exist in access to legal and safe abortion and in pay scales for equal work. But the failure of the developed world to accept the fact it is still struggling with equal access for its own women results in the usual dichotomy: developed countries falsely believe they are now paying to solve a problem limited to developing areas.

Another challenge to the goal of universality is the reporting demands in the new agenda. Less developed countries will require technical support and capacity building to meet those requirements, even though most have already set up reporting mechanisms under the earlier Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The hope is that these can be adapted to serve the SDGs.

Agenda 2030 also offers opportunities. Some common sexual-health abuses have been harder to solve, including violence against women, which continues to grow at alarming rates all over the world. Recent studies show that 1 in 3 women in the European Union, for example, has experienced some form of physical and/or sexual assault. But on one of the few gender issues that found consensus, the U.N. agreed on the goal of eliminating violence against women, including in conflict situations.

Likewise, as noted above, women rich and poor around the world still struggle to get the same pay as men for the same or similar work. In the developing world, most women still also struggle to get formal employment, surviving instead in the informal market where they may or more commonly may not get properly paid, especially for caregiving work.

Within the global gender agenda, however, SRHR reigns supreme in its universality. If gender equality and women’s empowerment are cross-cutting issues for all the SDGs, then SRHR is the cross-cutting issue within those cross-cutting issues. Contrary to whispers in U.N. corridors, SRHR should not be a dividing topic but rather the one that binds us together.

For example, activists in countries rich and poor alike must continue fighting to lower maternal mortality rates and provide access to safe abortion. Maternal care, HIV programs and reproductive-health services are key to reducing preventable deaths. Studies show that family planning programs are beneficial to all countries; they improve health and reduce mortality in both adults and children. They have intergenerational benefits as well: Economies grow through reduced fertility and higher female earnings. Every country has the right to determine its own laws and policies and to determine its own development priorities. But all governments should agree that they must prioritize SRHR if they are to reach their goals.

We must focus on what binds us together. The SDGs are interlinked and interdependent, and all must be achieved if no one is to be left behind. We cannot ensure sustainable economic growth without empowering women and girls. If women continue to be unable to join the labor force and contribute to economic growth at the same level as men, we all stand to lose. If our girls continue to get pregnant prematurely because they lack comprehensive sexuality education, they will continue a cycle of poverty that harms us all.

So can this gender agenda be a universal one? YES! But only if we the people agree to make it so.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user sanjitbakshi licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


Patricia Da Silva is an international advocacy advisor at the International Planned Parenthood Federation.