A commentary by Sumbal Javed (YGC, 2019)
It is a grim time for women’s reproductive rights. Still today in the 21st century, legal, political and cultural institutions shape a woman’s ability to exercise her sexual and reproductive rights. In the United States, the question of whether the last abortion clinics in the state of Louisiana could remain open went all the way to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, in Buenos Aires, the Senate very narrowly rejected a landmark bill that would legalize abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. Consequently, women rallied to demand the legalization of abortions. Underneath these developments loom a central question: Who owns a woman’s body?
The self-determination of women regarding reproductive health is not simply a matter of exercising one’s rights but can be a question of life or death. Globally, 830 women die daily from pregnancy or childbirth related risks, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). While it is true that most of these deaths occur in countries that lack adequate resources, developed countries are also confronted with this problem. In the US, more than 700 women die annually from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC estimates that 60 percent of these deaths are preventable. Furthermore, according to a recent study by Australian researchers, abortion-related maternal deaths are highest in countries with the most restrictive abortion laws.
Education is the key
Ensuring that sexual health and reproductive rights are prioritized on global health and sustainable development agendas was a major topic during the Global Solutions Summit in Berlin, Germany. On a panel on solutions for the SDG3 (The goal to ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages), Detlev Ganten, founding president of the World Health Summit, was asked about progress in this area. “Education is the key to everything (…) and the best vaccination”, he said. This education mostly starts within the home, commonly from mothers.
Missing from this answer was the aspect of gender. When it comes to education, stark gender imbalances still exist. In many cases women, who later in life become mothers, do not have enough access to education. Moreover, if we want to move towards gender equality one could argue that the responsibility to educate children is not the responsibility of women alone. This means that when looking at approaches to prioritize sexual health and reproductive rights the issue of gender always needs to be at the center.
Edward Whiting, director of policy at the UK-based biomedical research charity Wellcome Trust, said that in order to challenge the gender-power imbalance and its influence on abortion rights, local voices must be empowered. He also added that research on such matters must be presented clearly, compellingly and brought to the attention of individuals who are “invested in the well-being” of the respective populations.
The need for gender equality as a broad consensus
The topic of gender equality is one way to start a conversation, but it isn’t always an easy entry point. However, once the topic of gender is addressed, the issue of health arises soon after. On the international stage, the need for gender equality is a global consensus and can be a common ground. It makes sense to use gender equality as a starting point to address health and the disparity that exists between genders regarding health outcomes.
Whiting went on to say that there is a need for spaces where one can acknowledge differences and drive home the point that when we speak about health outcomes, we are speaking an individual’s life, their existence.
We need a multilateral world
Christophe Benn of the Joep Lange Institute reiterated that to tackle issues like sexual and reproductive rights we need a multilateral world. While there are individual people in government and even individual governments with strong reservations around reproductive rights in the international arena you find much more agreement around this issue. Therefore, even if individual countries and governments are reluctant for whatever reason: ideological, cultural or otherwise, they may still support these policies because of a greater international agreement.
I, along with many others, hope that this utopian dream that only a woman herself has the right to her own body will soon become a reality.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Solutions Initiative.