The United Nations Headquarters in New York is currently hosting the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, a ten-day gathering of government representatives, UN agencies, civil society and other stakeholders to review current global progress towards achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The 2030 Agenda, with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, is an ambitious global framework with the potential to change lives. It covers everything from health, gender equality, climate change, sanitation and energy, nutrition, poverty, and employment. Within the Agenda are specific targets to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health information and services and reproductive rights.
However, we still have a long way to go in this area. We still live in societies where heteronormative and patriarchal social norms police and stigmatize women’s sexuality, and prevent women and girls from seeking and accessing the information and services they need to protect themselves and live a healthy life. In many countries, governments have put into place laws, policies and practices that interfere with the lives of individuals whose sexual orientation, gender identity and expression or sex characteristics may not conform with a perceived “norm”. These laws only serve to perpetuate and increase inequalities by denying vital health care to people who are already vulnerable, for fear of harm, arrest or even death. Restrictive laws and policies limit women’s ability to access contraception and safe, legal abortion services. In over 70 countries, young people require a parent’s signature to access sexual and reproductive health care. Violence against women and girls is pervasive: around 120 million girls worldwide have experienced forced sex at some point in their lives, mostly at the hands of male partners who may be protected from prosecution by gender discriminatory laws.
Policies and laws that dictate sexual and reproductive choice can be harmful and coercive by restricting access to healthcare, limiting individuals’ ability to live their lives free from rigid and unrealistic societal standard. The 2030 Agenda presents a renewed opportunity for governments to achieve their sexual and reproductive health goals, and for advocates to hold governments to account for sexual and reproductive health and rights within this framework. Activists can use the 2030 Agenda to demand a more equitable legal system that protects their human rights, realises their right to health care, and ensures that they are able to prosper in the community.
During the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, IPPF partnered with OutRight Action International to host an event titled, “From Side-Line to Centre: Using the 2030 Agenda to Tackle Sexual and Reproductive Coercion.” The panel, made up of speakers from the Guttmacher Institute, OutRight, IPPF Western Hemisphere Region and IPPF Central Office, and moderated by a youth advocate from Bulgaria, explored how policies and practices that seek to restrict access to life-saving information and services, including modern contraception, abortion and comprehensive sexuality education, limit the ability of women, LGBTI people and their families to live free from harm, violence and coercion, and will hinder our ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
Sexual and reproductive health and rights underpin every aspect of sustainable development and economic growth, and are especially central to eradicating poverty and promoting prosperity. When women and LGBTI people can control their choices about their bodies, and be safe and healthy in their sexual and reproductive lives, they are better able to participate in education and the labour market, to care for their families, and have more capacity to contribute to their communities and social life.
When Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda, they also adopted equity as a fundamental principle - “no one left behind”. However, we will not be able to realise this ambition if legal and policy barriers exclude millions of people, including the most marginalised and vulnerable people from all corners of the world, from accessing these services.
Speakers emphasised the importance of data. We cannot act on inequality if we don’t have the data to show that it exists - and without accurate statistics, it’s hard to have a clear picture of who is being left behind, and who is not having their needs met. We have called on member states to collect comprehensive, accurate data which is disaggregated by age, sex, and key population status, as well as sexual orientation, gender identity or expression and sex characteristics (or other characteristics specific to national context) so that we can design effective and responsive programmes.
In order to ensure that everyone, regardless of age, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression and sex characteristics is free to fully exercise their sexual and reproductive rights, we must not shy away from inequality or pretend it’s not happening. We need to recognise it, understand the drivers, and work from the ground up to uproot the social determinants and structural barriers that keep people at risk. We are not equal until we are all equal.