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 (CESCR) 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 to health maintains that women are entitled to reproductive health care services, and goods and facilities that are:

  • available in adequate numbers;
  • accessible physically and economically;
  • accessible without discrimination; and
  • of good quality (see report A/61/338).

Examples of violations

Despite these obligations, violations of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights are frequent. These take many forms, including:

  • denial of access to services that only women require;
  • poor quality services;
  • subjecting women’s access to services to third party authorization;
  • forced sterilization, forced virginity examinations, and forced abortion, without women’s prior consent;
  • female genital mutilation (FGM); and
  • early marriage.

Causes and consequences of sexual and reproductive health violations

Violations of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights are often due to deeply engrained beliefs and 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 to various human rights violations as a result.

Relevant human rights standards

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."

TheBeijing 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.

The CESCR General Comment 22 recommends States "to repeal or eliminate laws, policies and practices that criminalize, obstruct or undermine access by individuals or a particular group to sexual and reproductive health facilities, services, goods and information."

Human rights standards in this area are summarized in the OHCHR information series on sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Videos

#RightToABetterWorld video series
19 November 2020

"Ask anything about health and human rights" with Kate Gilmore
17 June 2017

Feature stories



Related publications, resources and reports

Role of the Judiciary in addressing stereotypes in sexual and reproductive health and rights cases – a review of case law: This paper analyzes how courts and judicial bodies have challenged wrongful gender stereotyping in legislation, policies or cases by lower courts concerning select sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) issues.
PDF: English | Spanish

Translating community research into global policy reform for national action - A checklist for community engagement to implement the WHO Consolidated guideline on sexual and reproductive health and rights of women living with HIV (2019): This guideline seeks to support frontline health-care providers, programme managers and public health policymakers to better address the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of women living with HIV in all their diversity. It was developed with engagement from communities of women living with HIV throughout its development and publication.

Consolidated guideline on sexual and reproductive health and rights of women living with HIV (WHO) (2017): This guideline is meant to help countries to more effectively and efficiently plan, develop and monitor programmes and services that promote gender equality and human rights and hence are more acceptable and appropriate for women living with HIV, taking into account the national and local epidemiological context. It discusses implementation issues that health interventions and service delivery must address to achieve gender equality and support human rights.

  • Reflection GuidesReflection Guide for the Judiciary / PDF: English
  • Reflection Guide for Health Workers / PDF: English 
  • Reflection Guide for Health Policy Makers / PDF: English 
  • Reflection Guide for National Human Rights Institutions / PDF: English 

Resources on HRBA to maternal mortality and morbidity

See more resources on the human rights-based approaches to maternal health page.

Reports of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Good practices and challenges to respecting, protecting and fulfilling all human rights in the elimination of preventable maternal mortality and morbidity - Follow-up report (2020) - A/HRC/45/19

Summary report on the expert meeting to discuss good practices, gaps and challenges in the application of a human rights-based approach to the implementation of policies and programmes to reduce preventable maternal mortality and morbidity in humanitarian settings - A/HRC/42/24

Follow-up report on how technical guidance on the application of a human rights-based approach to the implementation of policies and programmes to reduce preventable maternal mortality and morbidity has been applied to States and other relevant actors (2018) – A/HRC/39/26

Follow-up report on how technical guidance on the application of a human rights-based approach to the implementation of policies and programmes to reduce preventable maternal mortality and morbidity has been applied to States and other relevant actors (2016) - A/HRC/33/24

Application of the technical guidance on the application of a human rights-based approach to the implementation of policies and programmes to reduce preventable maternal mortality and morbidity (2014) - A/HRC/27/20

Technical guidance on the application of a human rights-based approach to the implementation of policies and programmes to reduce preventable maternal mortality and morbidity (2012) - A/HRC/21/22

Other reports, handbooks and fact sheets

Factsheet: Your Health, Your Choice, Your Rights: International and Regional Obligations on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (2018)
Leading the realization of human rights to health and through health: report of the High-Level Working Group on the Health and Human Rights of Women, Children and Adolescents (2017)
PDF: English

Human Rights Committee decision on denial of access to abortion in Ireland, Whelan. v. Ireland (11 July 2017) (CCPR/C/119/D/2425/2014)
PDF in 6 official UN languages

Human Rights Committee decision on denial of access to abortion in Ireland, Mellet v. Ireland (17 November 2016) (CCPR/C/116/D/2324/2013)
PDF in 6 official UN languages 

CEDAW inquiry report on contraception ban in Manila, Philippines (2014)
PDF: English | Français | Español

Reproductive Rights are Human Rights: A Handbook for National Human Rights Institutions Published jointly with UNFPA and the Danish Institute for Human Rights (2014)
PDF: English 

ICPD Beyond 2014 Global Report
PDF: English