Full enjoyment of sexual and reproductive health and rights can mean the difference between life and death for hundreds of thousands of women and adolescent girls: the difference between dying during pregnancy or childbirth from preventable causes and delivering safely; the difference between an unintended adolescent pregnancy and the possibility of pursuing an education and an autonomous life; and the ability of any individual, irrespective of their social condition, personal identity or status, to enjoy a safe and satisfying sexual life without fear of sexual violence, sexually transmitted infections or socially transmitted prejudice.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, which sparked a renewed effort to promote and protect for all people all human rights under the vision that these go hand in hand with development. In Vienna, world leaders affirmed that women’s rights are indeed human rights, and they placed discrimination and acts of violence against women at the forefront of the human rights discourse.
The following year, in 1994, the International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo, underscored Vienna’s message and emphasized that sexual and reproductive health and rights should be at the centre of population and development policies. This human rights-based approach guides UNFPA’s work to this day.
Improvements in access to sexual and reproductive health information, education and services over the last two decades have triggered sustained changes in the lives of countless women, girls, men and boys.
From Nepal to South Africa to Colombia, and in many other parts of the world, we have seen how the removal of legal barriers and the challenging of discriminatory social norms have enabled millions of people, mostly adolescent girls and young women, to access basic social services from which they were excluded not so long ago. Civil society has mobilized to demand change and hold governments to account when public services did not meet minimum standards of quality, or when their voices were disregarded.
Despite unquestionable progress, however, we are reminded every day that gross inequalities persist and that for many women and girls, ethnic and religious minorities and other persons perceived to be different from the rest, speaking up is a dangerous option.
Sexual and reproductive health and rights are universal human rights. They are an indivisible part of the broader human rights and development equation. Their particular power resides in the fact that they deal with the most intimate aspects of our identities as individuals and enable human dignity, which is dependent on control of our bodies, desires and aspirations. Their empowering force starts in the home and goes on to the community, national and international levels.
As the world defines the post-2015 development architecture, the agendas set forth in Cairo and Vienna are as relevant and mutually reinforcing today as they were 20 years ago. Keeping the promises made by the United Nations Member States two decades ago – to promote and protect all human rights, and to ensure universal enjoyment of sexual and reproductive health and rights – is the surest route to a life of dignity and well-being for all people everywhere, a world where everyone is empowered to contribute to and share equally in the benefits of development, a world where everyone counts.