A new UN commission has tried to point out a path towards a world where everyone has the opportunity to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights. This is written by Hans Linde, union chairman at RFSU and member of the UN commission. Pictured: Demonstration for the right to abortion in Argentina. Photo: ProtoplasmaKid. Source: Wikimedia commons.

Guest chronicle

What is required for a world where everyone is free to decide about their body and sexuality?

Large parts of the world's population have little opportunity to make decisions about their own body and sexuality, despite the fact that the world's countries have time and again set ambitious goals. It is not difficult to see challenges, while a series of advances show that change is possible. A new UN commission has tried to point out a path towards a world where everyone has the opportunity to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights. It writes Hans Linde, union chairman at RFSU and member of the UN commission. 

In 2020, the UN agency UNFPA appointed a new high-level commission tasked with following developments in the world when it comes to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and how UN member states live up to their promises. Together, we have made a series of recommendations to the world's decision makers.

The background to the commission's work is the ground-breaking population conference International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994. Then the countries of the world gathered and adopted a common action plan with clear commitments. It meant a clear shift from previous decades' focus on "population policy" to putting the individual's right to their own body and health at the center.

In 2019, representatives of governments, civil society, private companies and philanthropists gathered again, this time in Nairobi. They wanted to celebrate the progress since 1994, but also to accelerate the work of implementing the ICPD agenda. The participants made a total of over 1300 commitments. Sweden promised to develop a national SRHR strategy and to continue prioritizing SRHR in its aid.

In the commission's latest report, Sexual and Reproductive Justice as the vehicle to deliver the Nairobi Summit Commitment, we note that progress has been made in recent years. Access to contraceptives and sex education has increased. Mexico, Benin and Colombia have legalized abortion. Sierra Leone has succeeded in reducing maternal mortality through investment in midwives. Several countries have increased access to important care through innovative methods and digital solutions.

However, the overall picture is disappointing. Maternal mortality is not decreasing. Many countries have sacrificed SRHR in the response to covid-19. Restrictions on abortion rights in the United States inspire the anti-rights movement around the world. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has resulted in yet another humanitarian crisis that has dramatic consequences for women and LGBTQI people in particular.

Large parts of the world's population face barriers in various forms that limit or, in the worst case, prevent their opportunities to exercise their rights and access basic healthcare. We see that restrictive norms and discrimination, climate change, humanitarian crises and an unequal distribution of resources undermine people's opportunities to make decisions about their bodies and sexuality. Different types of power systems interact and often reinforce each other. For example, women and girls are clearly overrepresented among those living in humanitarian crises and affected by climate change.

The same report shows that 274 million people in the world are dependent on humanitarian aid, support that rarely includes access to contraceptives, safe abortions and efforts against sexual and gender-based violence. In Ecuador, Australia and Great Britain, among others, maternal mortality is significantly higher in groups exposed to racism. In China, the regime is trying to reduce childbearing among Uighurs through forced sterilizations, abortions and contraception. In India, 46 percent of Dalits, the so-called "untouchables" in the caste system, receive no maternity care before a birth. LGBTQI people and people who have sex for compensation have less access to SRHR in large parts of the world.

Even in Sweden, we see that sexual and reproductive health is unequal. A study which has been carried out by the organization Funktionsrätt Sverige and RFSU shows that people living with a disability or chronic illness to a greater extent have experience of sexual abuse and rate their sexual health lower than the rest of the population. AMore voices also draws attention to racism in Swedish maternity care.

The Commission therefore sees that if we are to succeed in securing everyone's right to their body and sexuality, we need to insert SRHR into a broader framework of ssexual and reproductive requity where we make visible how inequality and cooperating forms of oppression and discrimination fundamentally determine ourt self-determination and access to care. It is simply not possible to carry out successful work for everyone's right to their body and sexuality without including issues of, for example, racism, climate change and humanitarian crises.

We still see that too much of the development cooperation takes place in silos, where the focus is on a form of vulnerability or discrimination. A review from the United States shows that this applies in particular to the financing of initiatives aimed at people with disabilities and LGBTQI people. It creates obstacles for local civil society to work with the barriers that people actually experience in their everyday lives.

The Commission on the release of its latest report. Photo: Nairobi summit.

The Commission emphasizes that we need to focus on the most marginalized, based on what they themselves define as their needs and questions. We particularly highlight the importance of including SRHR in humanitarian efforts, to make visible that the millions of people living in humanitarian crises are a heterogeneous group with different needs and to design support so that it also includes, for example, LGBTQ people, young people and people with disabilities .

The world has no shortage of wise reports. The important thing is that they are translated into action. In our report, we have chosen to highlight both good examples that we hope will inspire many, but also warning examples of setbacks, for example when countries have made large cuts in aid. We are already seeing how the commitments from Nairobi are beginning to be used to hold individual governments accountable, for example in connection with the UN's review of its member states (UPR). The commission's focus is now to create opinion and that our report can be used by civil society, parliamentarians and UN bodies in their work for SRHR.

In the Commission, we still feel hope, because we see many examples of how people choose to stand up for their rights. MeToo, Black Lives Matter and the climate justice movement demonstrate the strength of broad and inclusive movements. In Poland, millions have taken to the streets in protest against the country's abortion ban. In countries such as Bangladesh, Ireland, the Maldives and Turkey, we have seen widespread protests against sexual violence. In Latin America, the abortion rights movement, the so-called Green Wave, has succeeded in changing both legislation and public opinion. It shows a path towards a world where everyone is free to decide about their body and sexuality.

This is a guest column. The writer is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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