Sexual and reproductive health and rights are fundamental human rights

Rwanda recently disclosed that it was planning to allow more teenagers to have access to contraceptive methods. In the photo, over 2,000 joined Teen Pregnancies Eradication Mobile Cinema Tour by Plan International. / Internet photo

On Human Rights Day 2018, I would like to put the spotlight on the many women that die every year because some of their most fundamental human rights are not respected.

I would also like to convey my sympathies to the many daughters, sons, mothers, fathers and siblings that has lost, and will lose, a loved one. But also to our societies that will continue to lose so many brilliant minds and changemakers – all in vain – unless we implement the necessary reforms. Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are not only human rights, but a matter of life and death.

The Swedish government is deeply concerned about the global resistance towards women’s and girls’ access to human rights. Hence, in October 2014, Sweden became the first country in the world to launch a feminist foreign policy. The reasoning behind this decision was simple: throughout the world, women and girls are neglected in terms of resources, representation and rights; these three R’s are therefore always in focus when decisions are taken or policies made, throughout the entire foreign policy agenda.

Our feminist foreign policy agenda states that Sweden shall contribute to all women’s and girl’s: full enjoyment of human rights; freedom from physical, psychological and sexual violence; participation in preventing and resolving conflicts, and post-conflict peacebuilding; political participation and influence in all areas of society; economic rights and empowerment; and, sexual and reproductive health and rights.

The fundamental and universal right of women and girls to control their own bodies, is still seen as a highly controversial right in many parts of the world. Around the world, every year, 80 million unplanned pregnancies, 30 million unplanned births, and 20 million unsafe abortions can be directly related to women and girls not having access to SRHR. Furthermore, it prevents more than 220 million women and girls from having access to effective, modern and affordable contraceptives. Even more so is the fact that one woman or girl dies every two minutes from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth and almost 23 000 women die annually from unsafe abortions; deaths that, in the majority of cases, could have been prevented 

The Government of Rwanda recently disclosed that it was planning to allow more teenagers to have access to contraceptive methods. These progressive moves are in line with both human rights principles and contemporary research, it also shows the world that Rwanda holds what it internationally promises. Furthermore, it is worth to note the groundbreaking step that SADC took in relation to SRHR in its new regional SRHR strategy for the SADC countries – this is an inspiration for us all.

We know that access to modern, effective and affordable contraceptive methods and comprehensive sexual education means less unwanted pregnancies and less transmission of diseases. We also know that a lack of comprehensive sexual education will not lead to celibacy – it will lead to the spreading of diseases and unwanted pregnancies; pregnancies that might end up in abortions, regardless of regulations. In the most recent study about abortion rates in Rwanda – carried out in 2012 by the Rwandan Ministry of Health, the Guttmacher Institute and Rwanda’s School of Public Health – it was estimated that more than 60 000 abortions were performed in the country annually; the majority of which were deemed unsafe. The study attributed the high prevalence of unsafe abortions to the fact that abortion in most cases was illegal.

Much has thankfully changed in Rwanda since 2012. Recently, the Rwandan government expanded the access to safe abortion services in the revised Penal Code by removing the requirement to obtain a court authorization before the abortion. The revised law also allows for minors to legally obtain safe abortions if legal requirements are fulfilled. Both moves are positive and serve as clear signs of Rwanda moving towards full implementation of the Maputo Protocol. The general strides made by the government – both policy-wise and legally – relating to women’s and girls’ human rights are commendable. However, the penal code still comes with some regulations relating to women’s and girls’ right to choose over their own body, which continue to hinder women and girls from fully exercising their human rights. For example, when it comes to the legalization of abortion for minors, they can only obtain this if they are accompanied by a parent or legal guardian, and if they present their birth certificate. For an adult woman, the list of legal requirements is even longer... It is not difficult to understand why an illegal unsafe abortion might be the easier option for many Rwandan women.

In Sweden, abortion laws were liberalized in 1974. This reform made the choice of an abortion entirely up to the woman until the end of the eighteenth week of pregnancy. Since the reformed abortion law in 1974, the abortion rate has been at a constant, at around 20 abortions per 1000 pregnancies. In neighboring Nordic countries, with similar legislation, the numbers are even lower. The reasons to why our abortion rates are low can be attributed to the many contraceptive methods that are available for both youth and adults and that we provide mandatory comprehensive sexual education from an early age.

In the countries in the Caribbean and Latin America – some of which are notorious for their restrictive laws against abortion, poor access to contraceptive methods as well as comprehensive sexual education – the abortion rates are the highest in the world, at around 44 abortions per 1000 pregnancies. The teenage pregnancy rate in the same region, 66.5 births per 1,000 girls is one of the highest in the world, second only to Sub-Saharan Africa. These examples show that restrictions on a woman’s right to choose – whether by legislation or any other factor – do not eliminate abortion or unwanted pregnancies. Rather, it does the opposite.

Having a feminist foreign policy means asking uncomfortable questions and raising sensitive issues. The Swedish government has for a long time been a strong advocate for SRHR and gender equality, as they are integral parts of universally agreed upon principles of human rights. Rwandan society and government includes many strong activists, politicians, changemakers promoting gender equality. Sweden is looking forward to working together with progressive actors in Rwanda to strengthen the rights of women and girls and to make both our societies smarter, stronger and more respectful to the equality – and rights – of all our citizens.

The author is Swedish ambassador to Rwanda.

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