Are We Really Leaving Nobody Behind?
Equality & Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights for AllMarch 10, 2015 | United Nations, New York

In celebration of 20 years of the Beijing Platform for Action and in homage to women human rights defenders everywhere, the High-Level Task Force for the ICPD put on a dynamic event at the United Nations last week, co-hosted by the Governments of Denmark and Uruguay.

The vast Trusteeship Council Chamber was nearly full as several hundreds of the many thousands of policymakers and advocates who came to New York in March for the UN’s 59th Commission on the Status of Women filed in to hear the gripping testimonials and inspirational words of the grassroots activists, community and youth leaders, and international experts, who called on world leaders to prioritize their human rights, especially their sexual and reproductive health and rights, in the Post-2015 Development Agenda being negotiated in the General Assembly.

“Women and girls – half of the human race – face a most pervasive form of unequal status as global citizens: gender inequality. They also face intersecting forms of discrimination and barriers to enjoying their human rights and fundamental freedoms due to factors such as: being poor; considered too young or too old; their ethnic or racial origin; their political views or religious beliefs; because of marital status; because they live with disabilities or with HIV; or because of something as personal and private as their sexuality – who they choose to be with and love,” MSNBC journalist and event moderator Laura Flanders told the audience as she opened the program. Flanders noted that women and girls, especially from marginalized communities, face particular challenges in having their sexual and reproductive rights upheld, especially since these are often considered “contentious” or “taboo”, despite the fact that they are “simply rights to make decisions about our own bodies, health, sexuality, relationships, marriage and having children…without interference, discrimination or violence”.

Barbara Young, a native of Barbados, former domestic worker in the United States, and grassroots organizer for domestic workers across the country, opened the panel reflecting on the human rights abuses faced by so many of the millions of women migrant workers around the world. “Gender discrimination makes migrant women workers more susceptible to rights violations and abuse, especially for those in low-income and unregulated sectors of the economy. Jobs such as domestic work puts them behind closed doors, making them invisible, without legal protections,” Young said, noting that women migrant workers face “violations of their labor rights, lack of pay and leisure time, sexual abuse, and harassment, even being deprived of food.” But it doesn’t have to be that way, as Young’s own crusade for the rights of domestic workers has proven. Young’s work is considered instrumental in the passing of the historic New York State Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, the first of its kind in the US that guarantees overtime pay, days off, and protection from sexual harassment, including for undocumented workers.

Peruvian indigenous community leader and global spokesperson for the rights of indigenous young people, Tania Pariona Tarqui, cited a range of statistics depicting the plight of indigenous women and adolescents with regard to sexual and reproductive health and rights: violence, forced marriage, high levels of adolescent pregnancy and maternal mortality, and little access to sexual and reproductive health information and education. In her own country, Pariona Tarqui told the audience, only 61% of indigenous adolescents have heard of HIV, compared to 96% of their non-indigenous compatriots. She called for “intercultural health policies” that promote the sexual and reproductive rights of indigenous young people.

“Are we leaving anyone behind?” asked Ana Peláez Narváez of Spain, Member of the Committee of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, referring to the title of the event and the mantra heard often at UN in relation to the Post-2015 agenda. “Yes! Women, girls and adolescent girls with disabilities!….We, people with disabilities, have the same rights as everyone else,” she reminded the crowd, including the right to make basic decisions about relationships, marriage and family. Peláez Narváez decried the sexual and reproductive rights violations to which women and adolescent girls with disabilities are subjected, including sexual abuse at home and in school, and forced sterilization, with little recourse or access to justice. “Only with your commitment,” said Peláez Narváez, “can this reality change.”

Dr. Angela Diaz, a physician, Director of the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center in New York City and a native of the Dominican Republic took the floor to tell the audience about the extreme, life-threatening measures that women and adolescent girls take when facing unwanted pregnancies without access to safe, legal abortion services. These measures lead to nearly 50,000 deaths each year among women and adolescent girls, and in the prime of their lives, Diaz told the crowd, emphasizing that these deaths are entirely preventable. “As the World Health Organization, and I myself as a physician, know – abortion is one of the safest procedures when performed in line with medical standards,” she said. Diaz pointed out that while women and adolescents from all walks of life seek abortions for unwanted pregnancies, it is those living in poverty or otherwise marginalized that are forced to resort to unsafe procedures where abortion is not legal and accessible. “Is this social justice?” Diaz asked. “We are never going to end preventable maternal deaths and morbidity until we eradicate unsafe abortion as a public health problem.”

At 1.8 billion globally, and over half the population in some countries, people under 25 are certainly no minority, Youth Leader Manre Chirtau of Nigeria told the audience. But the other numbers she shared were more sobering: 13 million births every year are to adolescent girls, 1 person acquires HIV every 30 seconds, 150 million adolescent girls are raped or sexually assaulted every year, and 37,000 girls under 18 are forced into marriage every day. “Our rights must be recognized and respected, including the right to participate in decisions affecting our lives, and our sexual and reproductive health and rights,” Chirtau said. She called for specific measures to enhance the wellbeing and empowerment of adolescents and youth, including ending child marriage and gender-based violence, and ensuring comprehensive sexuality education. “Comprehensive sexuality education is often misunderstood as a tool that corrupts. [CSE] has been shown to protect young people from unwanted pregnancy, HIV and sexually transmitted infections and also promotes values of tolerance, mutual respect and non-violence in relationships,” Chirtau said. She closed with a strong message to policymakers on tolerance and diversity: “Too many people of all ages experience violence and discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity – within their own families, in education, in work, from bullying to assault and corrective rape, and this is unacceptable. Our generation will be the one to change that. And we hope decision-makers will join us.”

Gita Senrenowned scholar and activist and member of the High-Level Task Force for the ICPD, closed the event with a message to decision-makers to end inequality and prioritize sexual and reproductive health and rights and the human rights and participation of women, girls and all young people in the Post-2015 Development Agenda. “Sometimes when we talk of inequality, it is bereft of its human meaning, and it is treated as something that just drops from the sky…” and not a product of discrimination. Sen also noted the importance of different population groups coming together across “silos of discrimination” to advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights agenda “in [this] moment of great retrenchment and backlash.” 

“The evidence that is emerging shows that the benefits [of investing in equality] far outweigh the costs…they are what we call ‘smart investments’” continued Sen, who is an economist. “Closing the gender gap in labor force participation rates would increase global GDP by 12% by 2030,” she said, and “every dollar spent on sexual and reproductive health services yields $120 in return.” Meanwhile, the costs of inaction are grave:  “Intimate partner violence,” she told the audience, “costs a colossal $.4.4 trillion, around what developing countries spend on primary education.”

Read more about the High-Level Task Force for ICPD’s priorities for the Post-2015 Development Agenda here.