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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Celebrating the Contribution of the International Conference on Population and Development to the Realization of Women’s Rights

08 March 2019

International Women’s Day 2019
Consolidating 25 years of Achievements to Accelerate the Promise of Cairo
Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet
Friday 8 March, 12 noon, Palais des Nations, Room XXIV

Friends and colleagues, 

I’m honoured to join you on International Women’s Day.  Today, we acknowledge the contribution of women and girls to social change and call on all to work towards gender equality and the empowerment of women.  We need to encourage not only women but also men to change. Women and men should be supported to take leadership roles and, at the same time, to better manage work and domestic responsibilities. We need changes in norms and attitudes at the individual and community level, in laws and policies, and in the institutional culture of the private sector.  

Today, we unite around a very simple truth: Everyone must be free to make choices about their lives, their bodies and their sexuality. These are universal, fundamental rights that lie at the heart of our discussions today, at the heart of equality and dignity, at the heart of the 2030 Agenda, and at the heart of the Programme of Action agreed in Cairo 25 years ago.
The ICPD agenda gave the world an ambitious population and development strategy that recognised the fundamental importance of gender equality, the empowerment of women and human rights. 

It was a truly remarkable achievement – the product of decades of advocacy to change attitudes and social norms, persistent reasoned arguments, making the case for change at successive global gatherings, winning the argument with facts and real life experiences, and promoting and protecting human rights.  It would have been unthinkable without the unstoppable energy, commitment and demands of courageous feminist movements and women’s rights activists of all ages and backgrounds. 

Since then, progress at the global level has been mirrored by positive changes in the lives of women and girls. Maternal mortality has been halved; the availability and use of contraceptives has sharply increased; comprehensive sexuality education is being progressively introduced in several parts of the world; and we’ve seen progress towards the repeal of discriminatory laws that criminalize same sex consensual conduct and safe abortion services.   

But there are still stark disparities within and between countries. Women and girls from historically marginalized groups, such as the people living in poverty, persons with disabilities and adolescents are, in too many cases, the least likely to enjoy their sexual and reproductive health and rights, and the most likely to die or suffer as a result.

Every day about 830 women and girls around the world die from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. Every year there are 25 million unsafe abortions, many of which lead to death, the vast majority in countries where abortion is severely restricted. Around 120 million women have unmet family planning needs. Every year there are around 80 million unwanted or unintended pregnancies. While the incidence of HIV/AIDS is decreasing globally, it is increasing among young people.

Friends and colleagues,

These facts are not inevitable. They are the result of actions and omissions for which the State is responsible. They are the end result of inequality and discrimination. They reflect a stubborn refusal to accept the autonomy of women and adolescent girls over their bodies and in matters concerning their sexual and reproductive health.

Policy changes matter. Steps like repealing discriminatory laws and policies, ensuring comprehensive sexuality education, providing access to modern forms of contraception, and ensuring access to safe abortion services have the power to change lives.

Friends and colleagues, 

Twenty-five years on from Cairo, we find ourselves in a different era, with fresh challenges and a new impetus for change. 

 The 2030 Agenda gives us a significant opportunity to advance the human rights of all women. In fact, we cannot hope to achieve the SDGs unless we ensure that everyone’s sexual and reproductive health and rights can be enjoyed. 

We won’t achieve them as long as girls are expelled from school because they’re pregnant, or drop out because they get married; as long as boys and girls are denied access the information and services they need to practise safe sex; as long as women and girls are forcibly sterilized simply because they are from a minority group, or live with a disability.

We won’t achieve them as long as unsafe abortion is one of the main causes of maternal mortality and morbidity across the world, or as long as migrant women and girls are denied access to sexual and reproductive health services because of their status.

We won’t achieve them if activists and providers of sexual and reproductive health services are threatened, attacked, silenced, or have their funding removed; or as long as one in three women and girls face violence from intimate partners during their lifetime.

We won’t achieve them until we accept that gender equality and women’s rights require a fundamental shift and more courage; or until we overcome deeply engrained stereotypes and patriarchal attitudes.    

Friends and colleagues, 

Respect for sexual and reproductive health and rights means fewer maternal deaths and injuries, more respectful care in maternity wards, improved access to contraception, empowered and informed adolescents, and more girls in school. It means ensuring that no one is left behind. 

It is clear: when women decide about their own bodies, the world is better, stronger and safer. Respect for women’s rights improves health, lives and futures. It benefits families, communities and societies. It is at the heart of more just and equal societies that thrive and prosper. 

Cairo has taught us that we can achieve concrete change in global decision-making, and that we can use those decisions to transform everyone’s lives.  In the spirit of Cairo, we must promote and protect the autonomy, agency and choice of women and girls to make decisions about their own bodies, free from violence and coercion. To do so, we must empower them to demand their rights; we must ensure they are free to listen to the voices of otherwomen and girls; and we must ensure accountability, at all levels.

Thank you.