Earlier this year France was the latest to join a handful of progressive countries to expand access to reproductive health services — with its National Assembly amending the country’s laws to affirm a woman’s right to an abortion through the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and criminalize attempts to obstruct this right.
What is refreshing about this amendment to the French abortion law is that it was not standalone legislation but part of the Real Equality Between Men and Women bill, a package of measures to address gender inequality. Besides ensuring women’s access to reproductive health care, the legislation includes extending paternity leave to six months, banning beauty contests for girls under 13 years old and imposing higher fines on businesses and political parties that fail to respect gender parity.
France’s concrete steps are exactly what the United Nations should be doing over the next 10 days, as delegates from the UN, other government representatives and civil society members gather in New York for the 58th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, an annual conference to assess the condition of women worldwide.
The theme of this year’s conference, held March 10-21, will concentrate on implementation of the Millennium Development Goals — the UN blueprint for eradicating poverty, hunger and disease — for women and girls, which will inform the new development agenda starting in 2015, when the current goals end.
When the UN and member states negotiated the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), they set out to improve access to maternal health care and later to a broader range of reproductive health services as well as to promote gender equality. The MDGs treat the two aims separately when they are clearly interrelated.
It has become abundantly clear since the MDGs were established in 2000 and are now winding up, that first and foremost, women can be equal in society only if they can freely decide the number and spacing of their children. Achieving equality, particularly gender equality, has also been articulated as one of the main goals of both international development programs and international human rights law.
Development programs, however, have had limited success so far in eliminating the root causes of inequalities that women face, which in turn hinder the realization of women’s rights. We see this explicitly with reproductive rights.
Fourteen years after the Millennium Development Goals went into effect, 222 million women who want to avoid or delay pregnancy still cannot obtain modern contraception in developing nations. In 66 countries, abortion is either prohibited in all circumstances or allowed only to save a woman’s life. Women in these circumstances have virtually no control over the size of their families — a serious problem that carries over to other important decisions they must make about their lives, like their education or employment.
International human-rights norms recognize that reproductive rights violations often stem from, as well as reinforce, discrimination, poverty and violence. International human-rights treaties make clear that ensuring gender equality, including its reproductive rights aspects, is a human-rights obligation that states must respect, protect and fulfill.
Last year, 131 countries at the Commission on the Status of Women agreed to adopt a plan to combat violence against women and girls, urging all countries “to strongly condemn all forms of violence against women and girls and to refrain from invoking any custom, tradition, and religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination.”
As the principal global policy-making body dedicated exclusively to gender equality and the advancement of women, the commission now must address another barrier to gender equality — by calling on countries to ensure that all women can fully exercise their reproductive rights.
Over the next two years, countries have an opportunity to focus on the root causes of gender inequality by insisting that reproductive rights, the need to ensure equal access to health care services and opportunities for women are embedded throughout the post-2015 agenda, including under the likely goals related to gender equality, health, education and accountability/governance, which will be adopted by the end of 2015.
Women’s reproductive rights lie at the heart of their basic human rights. The UN and governments must adopt and enforce laws and policies that allow all women to control their fertility, their health and their lives.
This essay is the first in a series on reproductive rights.