Fighting for All Bodies: Generation Equality’s Global Movement for Reproductive Autonomy

At the U.N. Generation Equality Forum, stakeholders committed billions of dollars for the advancement of reproductive health and rights, and panelists shed light on where the fight for reproductive autonomy needs to go.

U.N. Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and French President Emmanuel Macron during the opening session of the Generation Equality Forum, in Paris on June 30. (U.N. Women / Fabrice Gentile)

“We are carrying on as if we are winning the battle of gender equality, but in fact, we are losing it,” said Alice Ackermann, youth activist and panelist at the U.N. Generation Equality Forum, held in Paris from June 30–July 2. The forum’s focus on the global backsliding of human rights from COVID-related crises was framed against the already existing need to recommit to gender equality goals set during the Beijing conference in 1995. 

One of the most anticipated moves from the U.N. Generation Equality Forum was the launch of the Action Coalition on Bodily Autonomy and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR). The coalition brings stakeholders—who span from government and NGO officials to private sector leaders—together to take concrete action in driving forward sexual and reproductive health rights around the globe. 

A Broad Definition of Reproductive Health 

During a U.N. forum panel about the impact of COVID-19 on women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, panelists deployed a broad framework to gauge the status of the world’s sexual health. 

“We cannot detach the impact on health from the social-economic impact of the crisis,” said Gabriela Ramos, UNESCO’s assistant director-general for social and human sciences. Ramos said COVID augmented pre-existing inequalities for women—especially low-income, Black and Indigenous women and women of color—who lack social protections and face barriers to health systems. 

The relation between economics and health was reiterated by Ulrike Decoene, director of communications, brand and sustainability at the AXA Group. Decoene reported that a study from her organization found half of women respondents said they needed to dip into their savings in order to survive the financial demands of the COVID crisis. A notable 30 percent of women said medical spending for themselves was one of the spending areas they needed to cut. 

”We have a sort of health time bomb in front of us,” said Decoene. “When you read that 60 percent of women with chronic conditions had to postpone their treatments, 40 percent in general did not go to regular check-ups during the pandemic—we all can imagine what this does in the long run for women and their status of health.” 

Panelists also discussed mental health and domestic violence in relation to reproductive health and rights. Ramos reported that there were up to 60 percent increases in anxiety and depression rates among women in some countries.

Terry McGovern, director of the Global Health Justice and Governance Program at Columbia University, called out government policy failures in preventing gender-based violence during the pandemic despite the predictability of increased rates during lockdowns. Both domestic violence and mental health are intimately connected to reproductive health decisions and autonomy. 

In another panel, called “Protect our Feminism: Our Bodies, Our Genders, Our Choices,” activists spoke to the inner workings of far-right organizations in advancing attacks on human rights—especially apparent in anti-abortion efforts. Panelists urged the inclusion of all marginalized people in the forum’s advancement of reproductive rights and bodily autonomy. 

Amar Protesta—a spokesperson for the French sex worker union STRASS and a sex worker herself—advocated for the meaningful and intentional inclusion of sex workers in the movement for reproductive autonomy. Reproductive rights for sex workers includes recognition outside of the informal economy, namely through social security and health insurance access that workers in formal sectors receive. 

At the same panel, activists advocated the inclusion of diverse gender expression in reproductive rights initiatives.

“It is of key importance to include trans experiences in feminism and for more general questions of sexuality and sexual and reproductive rights,” said Lee Ferrero, co-founder and spokesperson for the organization Transat in France. “As a trans man, if I give birth one day … I will be called a woman, there won’t be proper respect. This is transphobic violence, and this is a form of sexism.”

Major Reproductive Health and Rights Commitments 

With the launch of the Action Coalition on Bodily Autonomy and SRHR, stakeholders have already put forth significant monetary commitments.

We are focused on developing new and improved contraceptive technologies that meet the needs of more women and girls, investing in innovative strategies to fully inform women and girls about their contraceptive options,” said Melinda Gates, who a commitment of 1.4 billion USD towards family planning over the next five years.

Other major stakeholder commitments include 420 million USD from the Ford Foundation to five of the action coalitions; double core contributions to the United Nations Population Fund to meet reproductive health needs of sexual assault survivors; and one million USD from Iceland to U.N. Women for the engagement of men and boys in gender equality work. 

Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden committed to working with the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) to enact universal access to comprehensive sex education and reproductive rights. “IPPF commits to accelerate universal access to safe abortion care, centred on three principles: rights based, reproductive justice, and gender transformative,” said Alvaro Bermejo, director of IPPF.

The SRHR Acceleration Plan was also launched at the forum as a collaborative effort between non-governmental organizations, philanthropists and the governments of Canada, the Netherlands, Norway and the United Kingdom. The plan sets concrete goals for reproductive health around the world, namely:

  • expanding family planning access to more than 25 million women and adolescents;
  • transforming health systems in at least 20 countries to include SRHR services;
  • advancing policy reforms in 10 countries to increase SRHR information and service access; and
  • boosting financial support of women- and youth-led organizations by at least 3 million USD per year.

“I have seen the world jump together and shake the world of patriarchy,” said U.N. Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the closing ceremony of the forum.

While the pandemic resulted in some lost gains in gender equality and reproductive rights, the U.N. Generation Equality Forum has provided a platform to begin to build back.

“It has not all collapsed, but it is in bad shape,” Mlambo-Ngcuka continued. “I think we can only get better from here.”

Against the backdrop of the Generation Equality Forum in Paris, the United Nations Population Fund partnered with Equipop and Dysturb to highlight the critical importance of realizing bodily autonomy for all through an art installation including some 2,000 posters placed in high-traffic areas of Paris. The artwork comes from UNFPA’s 2021 State of World Population report, which commissioned original artwork. Much of the art was inspired by finalists in a photo competition that asked young people to illustrate the idea of losing or gaining bodily autonomy. View the display below:

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Lily Sendroff is an editorial fellow at Ms. and a rising senior at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She majors in the study of women and gender and government, with a concentrative subfield in comparative politics. Her work typically focuses on feminist economics, transnational feminism, and policy analysis.