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Back | Programme Area: Social Policy and Development

Universal Access to Sexual and Reproductive Health: Realizing Health and Human Rights

Date: 10 Mar 2017

  • Time: 10.30 - 12.30
  • Location: Room XXVI, Palais des Nations, 1211 Geneva 10
  • Counterpart(s): Sexual Rights Initiative, Government of Portugal, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands
  • Project Title: Linking Social Protection and Human Rights

Universal Access to Sexual and Reproductive Health: Realizing Health and Human Rights
Official Side Event of the 34th Session of the Human Rights Council

How can people’s sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHRs) around the world be better protected and promoted? Panellists at this event will present perspectives on:

  • Challenges and good practices in ensuring full access to SRHRs
  • Environmental dimensions of family planning
  • The linkages between a human rights-based social protection framework and access to these rights
  • Current global trends, and what these mean for implementation of the SDGs (and their achievement by 2030).


The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reinforced previously existing obligations for states to provide adequate, accessible and good quality health care as outlined in several human rights instruments—including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (as well as its General Comment No. 22 on the right to sexual and reproductive health and General Comment No. 19 on the right to social security) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women—by stating the need for states to ensure “universal access to sexual and reproductive health care services, including for family planning, information and education, and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programmes” (Target 3.7). Yet, lack of access to these services persists and, by some indications, it may become even more difficult.


Opening Remarks

Paul Ladd, Director, UNRISD

Nuno Cabral, Human Rights Advisor, Permanent Mission of Portugal to the United Nations Office at Geneva

Meghan Doherty, Global Policy and Advocacy Officer, Action Canada for Sexual Health & Rights

Paola Daher, Global Advocacy Advisor, Center for Reproductive Rights

Agnes Odhiambo, Women’s Rights Researcher, Human Rights Watch (via Skype)

David Chipanta, Senior Social Protection Advisor, UNAIDS

Elizabeth Maclean, Research Coordinator, International Center for Migration, Health and Development


UNRISD’s research shows that each SDG — including SDG 3.7 — requires sound social policy (defined as collective intervention, in particular state intervention, that directly affects social welfare, social institutions and social relations). This includes social protection programmes firmly grounded in a human rights-based approach. However, recent political developments and policy decisions taken around the world may have adverse effects on people’s rights to health care access in both the Global North and South.

Men, women and gender non-conforming persons are all entitled to SRHRs and require these services. And while everyone is affected by limited access to these rights, individuals from already marginalized groups such as children and adolescents, lesbian, gay and trans* persons, men who have sex with men, sex workers, drug users, indigenous peoples, and people living in poverty are the most affected, sometimes fatally.

This has even more severe ramifications for people living in many countries of the Global South, where complications arising from lack of access to adequate sexual and reproductive health services are a leading cause of death and disability. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), “few things have a greater impact on the life of a woman than the number and spacing of her children…. Yet, in this new century, some 225 million women who want to avoid or delay childbearing still lack access to the quality services and supplies needed to manage their fertility.”

SRHRs are also crucial in making sure that development practices are environmentally sustainable. Allowing people to make informed family planning choices reduces consumption and population growth trends that would otherwise result in enormous pressures on the environment.

Several international organizations have also included SRHRs in their mandate: the World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”, which includes complete sexual and reproductive health. UNFPA goes further, defining good sexual reproductive health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being in all matters relating to the reproductive system. It implies that people are able to have a satisfying and safe sex life, the capability to reproduce, and the freedom to decide if, when, and how often to do so” as a central component of its mandate to carry out the ICPD Programme of Action.

However, numerous legal, procedural, practical and social barriers seriously hinder or deny access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health facilities, services, goods and information elaborated in General Comment No. 22. Gender-sensitive, socially sustainable development should, therefore, include policies and programmes that provide universal access to these services without discrimination of any kind. However, domestic and foreign policies sometimes restrict, rather than protect, SRHRs.

Sexual and reproductive health rights include the right to sexual freedom and personal autonomy, as well as early diagnosis and treatment of illnesses such as breast, cervical and prostate cancer, access to services that prevent sexually transmitted infections and the right to safe abortion. When it comes to the latter, significant progress was made in the 20th century. Between 1950 and 1985, nearly all industrialized countries—and several others—liberalized their abortion laws. In 1994, the International Conference on Population and Development's (ICPD) Programme of Action, a globally negotiated plan to advance individual human rights, was adopted by 179 member states. By signing on to this action plan, these states signalled their commitment to preventing unsafe abortion. Since this important milestone, more than 30 countries worldwide have liberalized their abortion laws—while only a handful have tightened legal restrictions on abortion. Despite these important advances, in five countries around the world, abortion is completely prohibited, while in 189 countries, it is only allowed in cases where a woman’s health is in jeopardy.

A human rights-based approach to development means that national policies must be designed in a way that protects individuals’ dignity, autonomy and right to choose which family planning methods are best for them.



Photo credit: The USAID-funded Suaahara not only engages young mothers, but also fathers and other men of the family to ensure all-round support to improving the health and wellbeing of mothers and babies. by USAID Nepal (Creative Commons 2.0 via Flickr).