The lack of fulfillment and neglect of women’s and adolescent girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights is one of the most widespread injustices and manifestations of gender-based inequalities in many parts of the world.
Sexual and reproductive health and rights are fundamental human rights and ethical imperatives that lie at the core of advancing women’s empowerment and gender equality; and investing in them is central to achieving broader social, economic and sustainable development goals. When women are healthy and empowered to make decisions about their sexual and reproductive lives, they delay marriage and childbearing, are able to complete their education and more likely to find decent employment and thus can fuel economic growth.
The costs and consequences of neglecting sexual and reproductive health and rights are devastating, not only for the lives of women and adolescent girls affected, but to societies and economies at large. For women and girls from communities and groups living in poverty, rural or remote areas, or otherwise discriminated against and excluded – whether based on race, ethnicity, national origin or migrant status, disability, HIV status, sexual orientation or other factors – the intersecting forms of discrimination and exclusion compound gender inequality. To offer just one example, country data show how women from these especially marginalized groups tend to have higher maternal mortality rates than national averages.
Young women and adolescent girls pay an especially high price from the ‘double jeopardy’ of being discriminated against based on gender and age, and especially so if they face additional forms of discrimination. This age group faces unwanted and early pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and multiple forms of violence and harmful practices, including child marriage. Young women face HIV infection rates twice as high as young men. Pregnancy and child-birth related complications are the leading cause of death to adolescent girls in the developing world.
To ensure a post-2015 development framework that is equitable, inclusive and sustainable, there are key investments for the empowerment of all women and girls, with high payoffs across the gamut of national social and economic goals. As also affirmed by international experts in the UN Millennium Project Report (2005), these essential and interdependent strategic priorities include:
- Fulfilling the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women– including universal access to quality, comprehensive and integrated information and services, including modern contraception, maternal health and HIV prevention, and comprehensive sexuality education for all young people;
- Eliminating all forms of gender-based violence against women and girls, including prevention efforts and universal access by survivors to health and social services, justice and support;
- Eliminating female illiteracy and continuing to close gender gaps at all levels of education, especially to ensure secondary school completion;
- Ensuring women’s equal access to economic opportunities and productive assets, including in employment, equal pay for equal work, and access to land, property, inheritance, banking and financial services, and agricultural supports; and,
- Increased leadership in decision-making, including political participation at local and national levels.
The post-2015 agenda requires learning from MDGs lessons of the past, by ensuring explicit attention, targeted approaches and investments across strategic priorities for the empowerment of women and girls of all social and economic backgrounds, with special attention to disadvantaged communities. This includes ensuring that adolescent girls and young women are explicit and visible; that engaging men’s involvement and shared roles and responsibilities in productive and reproductive life is situated as a matter of public policy; that sustained funding streams are secured for accelerated progress, including to achieve universal access to sexual and reproductive services for all; and that data generation and monitoring systems are put in place, to ensure women and girls, and communities with least power and voice, are actively participating in decision-making and tracking outcomes.
A robust accountability system will be required, at political, operational and financial levels—with explicit measures of eliminating inequities. These are essential elements of a path towards genuinely equitable, inclusive and sustainable development.