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UNFPA Nairobi Summit on ICPD 25: Accelerating the Promise
Tracking Commitments and Resources for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Nairobi, 13 November 2019

Distinguished Ministers,


Colleagues, Friends,

I'm pleased to be here for this discussion, which I am convinced is critical for the future of the ICPD agenda.  

Clarity in tracking commitments – and the resources deployed to realise those commitments – is crucial to the realisation of any agenda. And in the case of the ICPD, the agenda we are talking about is fundamental to the lives of literally billions of women and girls.

This is not just about committing to delivering important services: it is about our obligation to realise human rights. It is about a shift from benevolent or even charitable assistance, to the creation of an environment in which women and girls are empowered to demand and claim all their rights as human beings.

Too often, we have seen voluntary commitments, which fragment the agenda for sexual and reproductive health and rights, and privilege the political priorities of a few over the human rights of all. Human rights require a comprehensive approach.

Often, stakeholders claim to be prioritising the rights of young people – but sometimes they are reluctant to advance comprehensive sexuality education, which equips young people with the information they need to make good choices and to protect their health.

Or, even where there has been a much needed prioritization of maternal health issues, we see a failure to enable access to safe abortion -- which forces women to resort to unsafe abortions, risking death and injury.

Human rights also have important implications for the allocation of resources. For example, minimum, essential levels of sexual and reproductive health services must be accessible to everyone, without discrimination – and then progressively advance towards more comprehensive coverage.

This explicit focus on the groups whom society leaves furthest behind demands that policy-makers address, not only their financial hardship, but also the discrimination, which holds them back – including racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination against people with disabilities and xenophobia.

Human rights also demand accountability. When people have rights – and not just needs – they can demand policy-makers and other actors to live up to their obligations. This means a right to identify where policies or laws have failed to align with human rights requirements, and a right to corrective and remedial action. This may involve issues of individual liability, but it is always about identifying, and righting, structural and systemic obstacles.

Today, we're seeing well-organized efforts to push back progress in women's rights, and particularly sexual and reproductive health and rights.

These are issues that have been at the core of the ICPD agenda from the outset. Indeed, the progress we've seen in implementing the ICPD agenda over the past 25 years has supported important gains in fulfilling the rights of women and girls.

We need to stand firm – and we need to advance. It is time to focus our attention on the unfinished agenda of the ICPD. Time to recognize that we need a more explicit human rights approach, to hold ourselves and our Governments accountable to the promise of Cairo.

Every day, more than 800 women and girls are dying from preventable causes in pregnancy and childbirth. Women who do not wish to become pregnant are being deprived of access to modern methods of contraception. HIV/AIDS is on the rise among young people. And still today, women and girls, without options, are driven to undergo an estimated 25 million unsafe abortions – a leading cause of maternal death.

These facts are not acceptable. They are not inevitable. They are grounded in inequality, discrimination, and the refusal to accept the rights to women and girls to make decisions about their own bodies and lives. They are the result of policy actions and omissions. And they need to change.

Civil society groups have taken powerful steps to engage international human rights mechanisms for greater State accountability, and to contribute to national movements for change. For instance, in 2011, in the landmark case Alyne da Silva Pimentel v. Brazil, CEDAW found that a maternal death constituted a human rights violation, and noted the intersecting forms of discrimination that contributed to the tragic outcome. This decision contributed to some important policy reforms in Brazil, though more action is needed to secure full implementation of the Committee's recommendations.

In 2014, CEDAW found that a municipal ban on modern forms of contraception in Manila, in the Philippines, constituted a grave and systematic violation of the Convention. This decision contributed to the reform of the Philippines' reproductive health law.

Just last month, the High Court in Tanzania upheld a ruling, grounded in human rights standards, which banned child marriage.

In other places, human rights accountability has been pursued through social mobilization – such as in Ireland, where activists took to the streets, and organized a successful referendum, to demand the Government liberalize highly restrictive abortion laws. These actions were supported by appeals to human rights mechanisms, which consistently called for reform of the abortion law.

Progress in securing accountability for sexual and reproductive health and rights, is not always straightforward. Sometimes it's two steps forward and one step back. Where we do see progress, it is always attributable to the action of multiple and diverse stakeholders.  Governments, legislators, human rights mechanisms, and the UN, play an important role.

Above all, civil society is indispensable. Women human rights defenders must often remain engaged over decades, overcoming setbacks and even facing down violence and threats. They face immense risks, particularly when their work focuses on gender, sexuality and sexual and reproductive rights. But their work builds, stone by stone, the bridge that every society can cross in order to achieve equality, and break down harmful stereotypes. We can help them build that bridge.

In fact, not only can we do this – we must.

Women human rights defenders insisted in 1994 that human rights be at the core of the ICPD, and they are still insisting today. The commitments we make at this celebratory Summit must reaffirm this basic truth.

We know what equality should look like. International standards, drafted and ratified by States, list the necessary measures. But we need to ingrain a culture of human rights into the hearts and minds of many policymakers, so as to have sustainable and human centred policies.

We need to overcome resistance to the sexual and reproductive health and rights, which are such a key part of human rights law and of the ICPD's programme of action. Sexual and reproductive health and rights are human rights. They are not new rights, and they are not optional. They are intrinsic to a range of internationally binding treaties.

At the very core of these rights is the right to autonomy, which involves deeply personal issues such as whether, when, how and with whom any individual chooses to have sex; whether, when, and whom one chooses to marry; whether, when, how and with whom one chooses to have children; and how we choose to express gender and sexuality.

These topics matter, vitally, to all of us. Together, and in solidarity with each other, we can stand up for the rights of every woman and girl, and deliver on the promise of Cairo.

Thank you.