At a time when women’s rights and gender equality are under new threats, we must redouble our efforts to protect women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. Among the universal or European legal instruments that protect these rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women guarantees women the right to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and access to the information, education and means necessary to exercise this right.
Sexual and reproductive health and rights are fundamentally linked to the enjoyment of many other human rights, as recently stated by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. As the jurisprudence and guidelines of human rights bodies amply demonstrate, sexual and reproductive health is an area where there are frequent violations of human rights such as the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to privacy. The right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex or gender is also at stake, as this right is violated in the absence of reproductive health services that only women need.
Access to sexual and reproductive rights is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights, including education and employment. However, obstacles to access to sexual and reproductive health services are themselves the result of violations of other human rights, including discrimination against women and gender stereotypes that persist in Europe. I expressed my concern about the regressive trends in recent years and attempts to control women’s bodies and sexuality, which may further impede women’s access to these rights and call into question the progress achieved so far in the area of gender equality.
The key role of access to sexuality education
All boys and girls should receive sex education during their schooling. This is essential to ensure women’s sexual and reproductive rights and is an integral part of the rights to education and health. The European Committee of Social Rights and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child have stressed that adolescents must have access to appropriate and objective information on sexual and reproductive issues, including birth planning, contraception and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, as part of the regular school curriculum and without discrimination of any kind.
However, sexuality education in schools is sometimes strongly resisted by some parents and other stakeholders. In some cases, parents have the opportunity to provide sex education to their children. In other cases, not all teachers who teach sexuality education have the necessary training and skills. In some cases, sex education may also include misleading information or value judgements, which can lead to problems such as the stigma of abortion among young adolescents or homosexuality. Currently, in some countries, including Lithuania, Romania and Russia, there are shortcomings in the curricula of primary and secondary schools with regard to age-appropriate and gender-sensitive sexual and reproductive education.
The need to remove remaining barriers to access to contraception
As highlighted by the World Health Organization (WHO), the strategy of meeting the need for contraception can go a long way towards preventing unwanted pregnancies, abortions and unplanned births. However, despite considerable medical progress, recent studies show that access to contraception is hampered by several factors in Europe, including misinformation about the reliability of contraceptives and a form of social disapproval that prevents women from discussing contraception with health professionals. The poorest people may find it difficult to benefit from contraceptive methods adapted to their needs because, in some countries, they are not reimbursed by social security.
Ensuring women’s rights, dignity and autonomy in maternity health care
I have received worrying reports of violations of women’s rights in the context of maternity-related health care, such as those highlighted by a study recently published by NGOs in Slovakia. The segregation of Romani women in maternity wards in some countries is also worrying. In recent concluding comments on Croatia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women had stressed the need to ensure that care during childbirth met adequate standards and that women’s rights, dignity and autonomy were respected in that context. Among the Committee’s areas of concern are reports that conditions surrounding childbirth and obstetric services unduly limit women’s reproductive health choices. For its part, the European Court of Human Rights has made it clear that “privacy” includes the right to choose the circumstances in which to give birth to one’s child.
The need to ensure access to safe and legal abortion
As the WHO has found, highly restrictive abortion laws do not translate into lower abortion rates. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has also recalled that “the legality of abortion has no effect on a woman’s need for an abortion, but only on her access to safe abortion”. Banning abortion does not result in fewer abortions: it only leads to more traumatic clandestine abortions and contributes to the increase in maternal mortality.
While most countries in Europe guarantee access to abortion without legal restrictions on the reasons, some have retained restrictive abortion laws, which are contrary to the case law and guidelines of international human rights treaty bodies. In a case concerning Ireland, the UN Human Rights Committee concluded in June 2016 that a woman forced to choose either to carry her pregnancy to term, knowing that the child would not survive, or to seek an abortion abroad, was subject to discrimination and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment because of the prohibition of abortion in Irish law. The Committee considered that, in order to avoid similar violations, Ireland should amend its legislation concerning the voluntary termination of pregnancy, including its Constitution where necessary, to bring it into conformity with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It stressed that the State should, inter alia, establish effective, prompt and accessible procedures for the termination of pregnancies in Ireland, and take the necessary measures to ensure that health-care providers can provide full information on the possibilities of safe abortion without fear of criminal sanctions.