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Women’s health should not pay the price

Gender equality: Women’s health should not pay the price for discriminatory ideologies

GENEVA (17 June 2016) – The United Nations Working Group on Discrimination against Women in Law and Practice today called on Governments to take urgent, immediate and effective actions to address the global challenge of safeguarding women’s right to health, including their reproductive and sexual health.

In a new report* to the UN Human Rights Council, the expert panel documents how the use of women’s bodies as instruments for political, cultural, religious and economic purposes represents a major obstacle to the wellbeing and safety of women. It also highlights that women’s empowerment is intrinsically linked to their ability to control their reproductive lives.

“Throughout their life cycle, women’s bodies are often instrumentalized and their biological functions and needs stigmatized,” noted human rights expert Frances Raday, who currently heads the expert group. “The instrumentalization of women’s bodies lies at the heart of discrimination against women, obstructing their achievement of the highest attainable standard of health.”

The Working Group defines instrumentalization as the subjection of women’s natural biological functions to a politicized patriarchal agenda. “Understanding and combatting the instrumentalization of women’s bodies and its detrimental impact on women’s health, is crucial for change to occur,” stressed the expert.

The Working Group found manifestations in all regions of instrumentalization, taboos regarding menstruation, breastfeeding, menopause and stereotypes which result in harmful practices such as female genital mutilation or which have a negative impact on women’s body image, leading to their seeking invasive cosmetic procedures.

“Instrumentalisation and politicisation of women’s reproductive and sexual health result in women paying a high price in terms of their health and lives,” said the expert. “In some countries, as a result of retrogressive anti-abortion laws, women are imprisoned for having had a miscarriage, imposing an intolerable cost on the women, their families and their societies.”

“We are particularly concerned about the use of criminal sanctions to control women’s autonomous decision-making over their bodies and their lives”, Ms Raday underscored.

The Working Group points out that criminalization of abortion subjects women to serious risks to health or life. “Criminalization does not reduce women’s resort to abortion. Rather, as WHO data demonstrates, it pushes women to seek clandestine, unsafe or other solutions,” explained the expert. “Ultimately, criminalization does grave harm by denying women, who need it, a legal and safe medical procedure.”

“The criminalization of women in prostitution/sex work places them in a situation of injustice, vulnerability and stigma and is contrary to international human rights law,” she said. “What they need is the guarantee of their right to access sexual health services, protection from violence or discrimination, and access to alternative economic opportunities.”

Ms. Raday urged governments to respect international commitments made over the past decades including the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, with the commitment to make gender equality both a stand-alone goal and a mainstreaming criterion, including in health and safety. This entails a“ strong commitment to women’s sexual and reproductive rights in international and national law, policies and programmes, which is crucial for achieving gender equality and ensuring women’s and girl’s right to health and well-being,” the expert noted.

The Working Group’s report concludes that women’s non-discriminatory enjoyment of the right to health must be autonomous, effective and affordable and the State has the primary responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil women’s right to health in law and in practice, including where health services are provided by private actors.

(*) Check the Working Group’s report:


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