At the Family Planning Summit, women’s rights should be centre stage

Barbara Dockalova & Mike Clulow | Jul 10, 2017
Family Planning Summit image of a woman
On Tuesday July 11th, ministers, officials and representatives of aid organisations will meet in London to discuss family planning. Convened by the UK Department for International Development, the United Nations Population Fund and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, this is a great opportunity to further women’s access to contraception and reproductive health services. The conveners are clear that family planning programmes should be rights-based but the critical importance of women’s rights can get lost in discussions about family planning as “a best-buy in global development” which benefits “in short, entire families, communities and nations”.

Our bodies, our rights

Every woman has the right to sexual and reproductive health and should have the freedom to decide if, when, how often and with whom they want to have children. To that end, they also have the right to be informed and to have access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable methods of family planning, as well as appropriate healthcare. All these rights have been recognised by the international community and are promoted by the World Health Organisation but they face stiff opposition from many quarters.
Around the world, patriarchal laws, social norms and behaviour deny women these rights, restricting their ability to take decisions on their sexual and reproductive health including decisions around contraception, pregnancy and abortion. Ultimately, women are denied the right to make decisions about their own bodies.
The African Women's Development and Communication Network (FEMNET) strongly argues for a rights-based approach to family planning that is accessible and affordable for all and which takes “into account the social, cultural and systematic barriers that discriminate against women in making informed choices and decisions over their bodies”.

The impact of violence

Violence against women and girls occurs in every country and culture. Rape, domestic violence, trafficking, female genital mutilation (FGM),child, early and forced marriage and other forms of violence directly limit women’s autonomy, reinforcing men's control of their sexuality and reproduction.
This violence causes unwanted pregnancies, depression and increased maternal morbidity and mortality. Women survivors of sexual violence are 1.5 times more likely to acquire HIV while those experiencing non-partner violence are nearly three times more likely to experience depression and anxiety. Sexual violence leads to higher rates of gynecological trauma, particularly among girls in child marriages who too often die as a result of pregnancy or childbirth.

Prejudice and re-victimisation

Women survivors of sexual violence need justice, support and care. However, when they turn to the police, courts or the health services, they often face discrimination and prejudice. In Zimbabwe, for example, abortion is legal in the case of rape but the courts put obstacles in the way. In a chilling case related by Her Zimbabwe, a 13-year-old girl with a hearing impairment was raped and became pregnant but the court demanded that she learn sign language before they would hear the case. This delay stopped her getting approval to terminate her pregnancy. In another case, Womankind’s partner, the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA) reported how a woman who was raped during an armed robbery was denied access to abortion.
Widows often face prejudice when they seek access to sexual and reproductive health care.  A study in Nepal involving our partner Women for Human Rights shows that widows “suspected of having sexual and reproductive health problems, or who discussed or tried to access these services, could be ostracized by their families and experience severe economic and psychological consequences. Additionally, widows feared discrimination, lack of confidentiality, and sexual harassment by male providers”.

Sexual revolution through feminist movements

The struggle against the patriarchal norms that stand in the way of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights has been a central element of feminist activism for many years. Womankind is proud to support women’s rights organisations and movements that are campaigning for these rights:
• In the case reported by ZWLA, their legal assistance led to a Supreme Court ruling that the survivor should be paid damages. Following this, ZWLA gained court orders allowing abortions for three 15 and 16-year-olds who had been raped. ZWLA report, “the investigating officers, the courts and the hospital worked well with ZWLA and the process ran smoothly... This reflects how institutional reforms are contributing to making the achievement of women’s rights a reality for women and girls experiencing violence and other human rights abuses”.

• In Bolivia, the Centro de Promocion de Mujer Gregoria Apaza trains young change agents to raise awareness of sexual and reproductive health and rights, denounce violent relationships, challenge the attitudes of parents and teachers and to lobby for health services that meet their needs.

• FGM has serious sexual and reproductive health implications. Community dialogues facilitated by Siiqqee in Ethiopia have led to the development of local laws to reduce this harmful practice.

• The Afghan Women’s Network runs successful awareness-raising programmes to challenge child marriage.

Meeting commitments at the London Family Planning Summit

Many struggles remain before women can fully enjoy their sexual and reproductive health and rights and feminist movements are unable to effect such changes alone. International organisations and national governments must develop and enforce policies and legislation that guarantee women’s rights and ensure protection from violence and discrimination. This is their responsibility under international and regional human rights frameworks.

FEMNET has argued: “African States should uphold commitments on sexual and reproductive health and rights in the various declarations from the Beijing Platform for Action to the Maputo Protocol and should implement, finance, domesticate and provide a policy framework for the provision of family planning methods without reservation."
The London Family Planning Summit provides an opportunity for the international community to commit to such an approach. Participants should address sexual and reproductive health in a comprehensive way, leaving no one behind, and promoting the whole spectrum of sexual and reproductive rights.

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