Human rights-based approach to maternal health

The deaths and injuries suffered by women and adolescent girls in pregnancy and childbirth, as well as by infants and young children, are largely preventable, yet they still occur at alarming rates.

Under international human rights law, governments have legal obligations to maintain the highest possible standard of health and health care for women, children and adolescents. There is also increasing evidence that systematic application of human rights standards and principles contributes to health.

The Human Rights Council has recognized that applying a rights-based approach to the reduction of maternal and child mortality and morbidity is key to making meaningful progress in this area. The application of human rights-based approaches in the areas of women and children’s health is increasingly gaining acceptance among a diverse range of stakeholders.

Technical guidance in applying a human rights-based approach

The Office of the High Commissioner has produced two technical guidance documents on the application of a human rights-based approach to the implementation of policies and programmes to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity, and under-5 child mortality and morbidity.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights—with UNFPA; WHO; the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health; and the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights of Harvard University—has also produced a series of Reflection Guides for different stakeholder groups to provide detailed advice on the application of rights-based approaches to maternal and child health:


Health Policy Makers
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National Human Rights Institutions
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Health Workers
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Judiciary
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Global Strategy on Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health (2015-2030)

The UN Secretary-General has also prioritized women and children’s health through his Every Woman Every Child initiative, launched in 2010 with the Secretary General’s Global Strategy for Women and Children’s Health. This strategy affirmed that these are matters of fundamental human rights.

The Global Strategy galvanized global action in key areas, such as financing for the improvement of women’s and children’s health. Important gains have been registered as a result.

Since 2015, the renewed Global Strategy on Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health (2015-2030) is taking this agenda forward by focusing on the health and health-related rights of women, children and adolescents as part of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals.

Dedicated High Level Working Group

In May 2016, the WHO Director General and the High Commissioner established the High Level Working Group on the Health and Human Rights of Women, Children and Adolescents. The Working Group is co-chaired by Tarja Halonen, former President of Finland; and Hina Jilani, prominent human rights defender and member of the Elders of Pakistan; along with Dr Denis Mukwege, serving as the Group’s Rapporteur.

In 2017, the High Level Working Group published a report calling for bold, unapologetic leadership and action at the highest levels to realize rights to health and through health. The report also encourages health workers to embrace their roles as human rights defenders.

Download the report: Leading the Realization of Human Rights to Health and Through Health PDF: English | Français

Infographics: Recommendations (JPG), Key Challenges (JPG)

Get more information about the Working Group.

Additional reports and resources