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Gender equality: Women’s health should not pay the price for discriminatory ideologies

GENEVA (17 June 2016) – The United Nations Working Group on Discrimination against Women in Law and Practice today called on Governments to take urgent, immediate and effective actions to address the global challenge of safeguarding women’s right to health, including their reproductive and sexual health.   

In a new report* to the UN Human Rights Council, the expert panel documents how the use of women’s bodies as instruments for political, cultural, religious and economic purposes represents a major obstacle to the wellbeing and safety of women. It also highlights that women’s empowerment is intrinsically linked to their ability to control their reproductive lives.

“Throughout their life cycle, women’s bodies are often instrumentalized and their biological functions and needs stigmatized,” noted human rights expert Frances Raday, who currently heads the expert group. “The instrumentalization of women’s bodies lies at the heart of discrimination against women, obstructing their achievement of the highest attainable standard of health.”

The Working Group defines instrumentalization as the subjection of women’s natural biological functions to a politicized patriarchal agenda. “Understanding and combatting the instrumentalization of women’s bodies and its detrimental impact on women’s health, is crucial for change to occur,” stressed the expert.

The Working Group found manifestations in all regions of instrumentalization, taboos regarding menstruation, breastfeeding, menopause and stereotypes which result in harmful practices such as female genital mutilation or which have a negative impact on women’s body image, leading to their seeking invasive cosmetic procedures.

“Instrumentalisation and politicisation of women’s reproductive and sexual health result in women paying a high price in terms of their health and lives,” said the expert. “In some countries, as a result of retrogressive anti-abortion laws, women are imprisoned for having had a miscarriage, imposing an intolerable cost on the women, their families and their societies.”

“We are particularly concerned about the use of criminal sanctions to control women’s autonomous decision-making over their bodies and their lives”, Ms Raday underscored.

The Working Group points out that criminalization of abortion subjects women to serious risks to health or life. “Criminalization does not reduce women’s resort to abortion. Rather, as WHO data demonstrates, it pushes women to seek clandestine, unsafe or other solutions,” explained the expert. “Ultimately, criminalization does grave harm by denying women, who need it, a legal and safe medical procedure.”

“The criminalization of women in prostitution/sex work places them in a situation of injustice, vulnerability and stigma and is contrary to international human rights law,” she said. “What they need is the guarantee of their right to access sexual health services, protection from violence or discrimination, and access to alternative economic opportunities.”

Ms. Raday urged governments to respect international commitments made over the past decades including the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, with the commitment to make gender equality both a stand-alone goal and a mainstreaming criterion, including in health and safety.  This entails a“ strong commitment  to women’s sexual and reproductive rights in international and national law, policies and programmes, which is crucial for achieving gender equality and ensuring women’s and girl’s right to health and well-being,” the expert noted.

The Working Group’s report concludes that women’s non-discriminatory enjoyment of the right to health must be autonomous, effective and affordable and the State has the primary responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil women’s right to health in law and in practice, including where health services are provided by private actors.

(*) Check the Working Group’s report: http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?si=A/HRC/32/44

The UN Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice was established by Human Rights Council in September 2010 to identify, promote and exchange views on good practices related to the elimination of laws that discriminate against women. The Group is composed of four independent experts from all regions of the world: Frances Raday (Israel/United Kingdom), Chair-Rapporteur; Alda Facio, Vice Chair; Emna Aouij (Tunisia); Eleonora Zielinska (Poland); and Kamala Chandrakirana (Indonesia). Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/women/wgwomen/pages/wgwomenindex.aspx

The Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

Check the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CEDAW.aspx

For more information and media requests, please contact Hannah Wu (+41 22 917 9152 /hwu@ohchr.org) and Bernadette Arditi (+41229179159/barditi@ohchr.org) or write to wgdiscriminationwomen@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)  

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