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Sarup: There Are No Reproductive Rights For Women

There Are No Reproductive Rights For Women

By Kamala Sarup

In the developing world, an average of 40 percent of women give birth before the age of 20, ranging from a low of 8 percent in East Asia to a high of 56 percent in West Africa. Between 12 and 42 percent of married adolescent women in developing countries want to space or limit births, but are not using family planning. Unaccountable mothers in the developing countries find themselves caught between a life and death situation that can be termed as critically dangerous due to repeated pregnancy, poverty, financial problems, illiteracy, hunger, diseases like Aids. Other social pressures have driven thausands of mothers towards this situation.

Women's reproductive rights were still hotly debated at the Beijing Conference in 1995, and at the UN General Assembly Special Session on Beijing+5 in June 2000.Progress on this issue could not have been achieved without women's collaboration, despite borders separating them and government opposition.In fact, the Convention does not imply any specific women's rights but is a reflection of the reality that universally- recognized human rights are still not enjoyed equally by women and men.

In the past 20 years, the world has experienced a rise in educational levels. However, 75% of the total illiterate population are women. They have domestic burdens, agricultural work burdens, unavailability of employment opportunities, lack of rights in ancestral property and sufficient nourishment from their own land. Most maternal deaths occur in the less developed world, particularly in Asia and Africa. More and more women are not in favor of having many children, but these women do not have an easy access to the various types of a family planning facilities. Child marriage, illiteracy, poverty, lack of civic sense, inactivity on the part of the women regarding their role in society, lack of family planning measures and the popularity of the male child forces the women to mother a child.

There is no reproductive freedom for the majority of women. They have to bear children one after the other until her husband is satisfied. A son is a must. A husband's consent is a must for sterilization. Most of the women's deaths in the developing countries can be prevented by current medical knowledge, but there are many reasons why mothers continue to die.There are cultural and social causes that increase the risk of women's death during pregnancy. A group of causes are centered around the legal aspects of the human and reproductive rights of women.

The family planning issue was not discussed when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drawn up. However, it has become a recognized basic human right, which has had a major impact on the advancement of women's status and their lives during the past century. Women's right and means to control their own fertility also improves the possibility of controlling their lives in general and realizing their other human rights. The right to family planning is a "latecomer" when compared with women's political and legal rights; as late as the 1960s it was still a fairly new issue around the world.

The right to family planning was recognized for the first time as a human right in the 1968 Declaration of Teheran, which resulted from the International Conference on Human Rights. In the following year it was included in the Declaration on Social Progress and Development by the UN General Assembly. In the 1970s the issue was constantly debated at the General Assembly and in world conferences.

The dangers attached to repeated pregnancy and abortion can be reduced by teaching safe methods of birth control and advocating women's right from the grassroots level. Only then can the maternal mortality be checked and reduced to some extent. The lack of family planning programs in the rural areas, unwanted pregnancy due to the lack of preventive measures, criminal offenses like rape and illicit sexual relations ending in abortion, leads to the death of 50 percent of women in the developing countries.

At the ICPD, 180 nations recognized the importance of improving access to health care, education and employment opportunities to improve women's development. The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, said all the nations."In too many countries, girls still do not have the same chance to be educated as boys. Too many women still can not choose when or whether to become pregnant. Too many women are sexual violence, especially during conflict. Too many women resort to abortions that are not safe. Too many are still subjected to genital mutilation and other harmful traditional practices. Too many men remain ignorant of, or indifferent to, their responsibility for the family and its reproductive health."

The right to family planning became a major issue at the first UN World Population Conference in 1974. Very precise formulations on the issue were adopted by the 1975 World Conference of the International Women's Year (IWY) in Mexico. Its World Plan of Action and Declaration said that "every couple and every individual has the right to decide freely and responsibly whether or not to have children as well as to determine their number and spacing, and to have information, education and means to do so" (United Nations, 1975).

Even the right to family planning is more specifically defined in the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. It reaffirms this right as a binding obligation of the Member States. In the Programme of Action of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo, the concepts of "reproductive rights and reproductive health" were defined and adopted. These new formulations expanded understanding of the issue.

According to the Cairo Programme of Action (United Nations, 1994), "Reproductive health implies that people are able to have a satisfying and safe sex life and that they have the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when and how often to do so. Implicit in this are the rights of men and women to be informed and to have access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable methods of family planning of their choice" (paragraphs 7.2 and 7.3). Reproductive health and rights received even more precise and extensive formulation in the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, which reconfirms the definitions formulated in Cairo (paragraphs 94-96).

In practice, the right and access to family planning is an asset for entire families the world over. It is important even from an economic point of view because it helps families to plan better to provide nourishment, care, housing and education for their children.

In comparison to men, a large proportion of women are engaged in agricultural sector. In industries other than agriculture the participation of men is much higher than that of women. Proportion of women involved in occupation other than agriculture is estimated to be less than 10 percent. However, almost all economically active women who have attained graduation are engaged in white color occupation. Almost three-fourth of economically active men/women are self-employed and the proportion of self-employed females is much higher. Reproductive rights is one of the major women's issues recognized by women groups and activists. The discriminatory system in several countries has put women in a powerless, disadvantaged position right from the beginning. Education is imperative as it can only help women in to improve their life economically, educationally, politically and legally.


(Kamala sarup is editor of

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