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Sexual and reproductive health and rights

Women’s sexual and reproductive health is related to multiple human rights, including the right to life, the right to be free from torture, the right to health, the right to privacy, the right to education, and the prohibition of discrimination. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) have both clearly indicated that women’s right to health includes their sexual and reproductive health. This means that States have obligations to respect, protect and fulfill rights related to women’s sexual and reproductive health. The Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health maintains that women are entitled to reproductive health care services, goods and facilities that are: (a) available in adequate numbers; (b) accessible physically and economically; (c) accessible without discrimination; and (d) of good quality [see report A/61/338.

Despite these obligations, violations of women’s sexual and reproductive health rights are frequent. These take many forms including denial of access to services that only women require, or poor quality services, subjecting women’s access to services to third party authorization, and performance of procedures related to women’s reproductive and sexual health without the woman’s consent, including forced sterilization, forced virginity examinations, and forced abortion. Women’s sexual and reproductive health rights are also at risk when they are subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) and early marriage.

Violations of women’s sexual and reproductive health rights are often deeply engrained in societal values pertaining to women’s sexuality. Patriarchal concepts of women’s roles within the family mean that women are often valued based on their ability to reproduce. Early marriage and pregnancy, or repeated pregnancies spaced too closely together, often as the result of efforts to produce male offspring because of the preference for sons, has a devastating impact on women’s health with sometimes fatal consequences. Women are also often blamed for infertility, suffering ostracism and being subjected various human rights violations as a result.

CEDAW (article 16) guarantees women equal rights in deciding “freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights.” CEDAW (article 10) also specifies that women’s right to education includes “access to specific educational information to help to ensure the health and well-being of families, including information and advice on family planning.”

The Beijing Platform for Action states that “the human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.” The CEDAW Committee’s General Recommendation 24 recommends that States prioritise the “prevention of unwanted pregnancy through family planning and sex education.” The CESCR General Comment 14 has explained that the provision of maternal health services is comparable to a core obligation which cannot be derogated from under any circumstances, and the States have to the immediate obligation to take deliberate, concrete, and targeted steps towards fulfilling the right to health in the context of pregnancy and childbirth.

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