More than Words for Women’s Rights

On International Women’s Day, governments must recommit to protecting reproductive rights as human rights, writes Jacqueline Nolley Echegaray.

A Pakistani woman attends a rally demanding an end to discriminatory laws against women in Islamabad, Pakistan, to mark International Women's Day. (AP/Anjum Naveed)
A Pakistani woman attends a rally demanding an end to discriminatory laws against women in Islamabad, Pakistan, to mark International Women's Day. (AP/Anjum Naveed)

Yesterday, on International Women’s Day, people around the world celebrated the latest triumphs in the global struggle for women’s rights and recommitted to the pursuit of gender equality.

Indeed, tremendous progress has been made since World War II in codifying women’s rights and gender equality within the law at both the international and individual country levels. Unfortunately, limited progress has been made in realizing those rights. Although women and girls today tend to enjoy better health, more rights, and longer lives than their grandmothers did, for far too many women, human rights still are not a reality.

In particular, many women do not enjoy full reproductive rights. These rights are recognized as human rights because women cannot fully participate in society unless they are able to control the number, spacing, and timing of their children, and they cannot enjoy general health and well-being unless they have reproductive and sexual health. The overwhelming majority of the world’s nations have committed to promoting and protecting these rights, but governments often shirk their responsibilities—and it is women who pay the price.

Surviving pregnancy and childbirth is inherent to the right to life, liberty, and security. Yet pregnancy itself poses a grave health risk to women around the world: Complications during pregnancy are the leading cause of death globally for young women aged 15 to 19, and women die of pregnancy-related causes at a rate of about one per minute, or approximately 536,000 maternal deaths worldwide in 2005.

The right to decide the number and spacing of children is also recognized as a human right itself. All too often, women have little to no say over how many children they will bear or even if, when, or how frequently they will become pregnant. Two hundred million women lack access to contraceptives globally. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that universal access to contraception would save the lives of one in three women who die of causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, or roughly 160,800 women per year.

The right not to be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment is enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. This right is violated when women are denied sexual and reproductive self-determination. Rape, especially when used as a tool of war, is a clear infringement of this right.

Forced sterilizations are another example. During the 1990s, for instance, the Peruvian government undertook a “massive, compulsory, and systematic” sterilization campaign targeting the country’s most marginalized population—the indigenous and poor. Thousands of women, as well as some men, were coerced by government officials into undergoing sterilization. Many women died as a result of botched surgeries, and the Peruvian government was eventually forced to acknowledge its responsibility in violating the reproductive rights of these women.

Bans on abortion violate not only the right to health, but rights to life, liberty, bodily integrity, privacy, nondiscrimination and equality, as well as the right to choose the number and spacing of children. Abortion bans do not, however, prevent women from terminating pregnancies. In fact, abortion remains one of the most common medical procedures in the world, regardless of whether it is legal. Approximately 70,000 women per year die from unsafe abortions, and at least 5 million others suffer serious injury. These deaths and injuries are almost entirely preventable.

The consequences of a 2006 decision in Nicaragua to criminalize abortion under all circumstances—even when necessary to save a woman’s life—demonstrate the consequences to women’s lives when these rights are denied. A Human Rights Watch investigation carried out shortly after the ban was implemented found that, despite protocols requiring doctors to treat certain obstetric emergencies, a pervasive fear of prosecution among health care providers resulted in the delay or denial of care. Women who were refused treatment suffered sterility, maiming and, in at least 80 cases, death.

In the United States, the Supreme Court established a right to legal abortion in 1973. Yet today this right is effectively denied to poor women as a result of subsequent policies and court rulings. Since 1976, the Hyde Amendment has limited public funding for abortion in most circumstances, leaving approximately 12 million women of reproductive age enrolled in Medicaid without coverage for the procedure. Almost all of these women are poor, and a majority are women of color. These women and others affected by similar funding bans struggle to find the money they need for abortion care; they forgo food, shelter, and other necessities; and often they delay treatment, which increases their health risks.

The international community must work to ensure that governments adhere to their existing commitments to reproductive rights standards and to guarantee reproductive autonomy for all. For decades, a vibrant global network of committed advocates has worked tirelessly to promote the right of women and men to control their own reproduction and sexuality. Thanks largely to their persistence, reproductive rights are now accepted as integral to human rights. But now these rights must be recognized as even more: integral to a life lived with dignity. Women around the world are demanding the ability to control their own bodies; it is time for their leaders to listen.

An expanded version of this column will appear in the forthcoming contributed volume, A Pivotal Moment: Human Population, the Environmental Crisis and the Justice Solution, edited by Laurie Mazur (Island Press).

Jacqueline Nolley Echegaray is the Associate for International Programs at the Moriah Fund.

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