The post-2015 agenda must emphasize reproductive rights and robust accountability

by Rebecca Brown/Center for Reproductive Rights | Center for Reproductive Rights
Friday, 6 March 2015 19:21 GMT

Khelan Bai, the grandmother of a victim who died after she underwent surgery at a government mass sterilization camp, mourns in her house at Bilaspur district in the eastern Indian state of Chhattisgarh November 14, 2014. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As states work with the UN to develop a new development agenda, they have an opportunity to fully respect, protect, and fulfill their reproductive rights obligations

Last year, 12 women died from complications following their participation in a mass sterilization camp in Chhattisgarh, India. At this camp, one doctor performed sterilization surgery—a procedure that permanently removes a woman’s ability to become pregnant—on 83 women over the course of 6 hours in unsanitary conditions that put their health, lives, and well-being at risk.

This case is unfortunately all too common in India, where reproductive health policy is based on population control measures rather than human rights and where doctors are financially rewarded for sterilizing women. Women in India, particularly those living in rural and low-income communities, are incentivized to undergo sterilization with promises of monetary compensation for proceeding with the surgery.  

These women are not informed of the full range of modern contraceptives, so believing there is no other option, they oftentimes opt for sterilization. This is not only financial coercion, but also a practice that deprives women of making reproductive health choices.

The women in Chhattisgarh are just one example of the countless stories of women living in countries where reproductive rights and gender equality are not respected or guaranteed.

Without access to reproductive health services such as contraception, abortion, and maternal care, a woman cannot exercise her autonomy or make meaningful choices about her life.

Because women bear the burden of pregnancy and the majority of child-rearing responsibilities in countries across the globe, their ability to control their reproductive health affects many aspects of their lives —from employment to education to equal participation in their families and communities.

Yet, today:

  • There are 222 million women and girls worldwide with an unmet need for contraceptives.
  • Twenty-two million unsafe abortions take place around the world each year, with significant consequences and severe risks for women's health and lives.
  • In developing countries, pregnancy is the leading cause of death for adolescents aged 15-19.

As states work with the United Nations to develop a new agenda that will guide development programs and seek to ensure better lives for all people, they have an opportunity to fully respect, protect, and fulfill their reproductive rights obligations in line with the goal of ensuring gender equality.

States have developed a set of Sustainable Development Goals, to be met by 2030, that include targets on sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights under goals on health and gender equality. But there is a danger that they will not meet these commitments. And it is the millions of women depending on these advances that will suffer for it. 

We must emphasize a human rights based approach to sexual and reproductive health in the new development agenda that ensures equal rights for every person, and we must develop meaningful, measurable, and transparent ways for women to hold states accountable to these human rights obligations and development commitments.

In India, the doctor who performed the sterilizations was ultimately arrested and is expected to be tried for the deaths of those 12 women. But India, and many other countries in all regions of the world, has not yet done enough to change its reproductive health policies to focus on—and not undermine—women’s human rights.

As we commemorate International Women’s Day, our hope is that one day all women can make reproductive health choices and have access to the critical care and services they need free, from this kind of violence, discrimination, and coercion.

One step in the right direction is to ensure that human rights are included in the Post-2015 agenda. Gender equality will only be realized once women’s reproductive rights are respected, protected, and fulfilled.   

Rebecca Brown is director of Global Advocacy at the Center for Reproductive Rights.