Press Release - Reproductive Rights Need to be Secured in Practice, Panel Told.

United Nations Population Fund

Contact in New York:
Alex Marshall
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William Ryan
Abubakar Dungus

KAMPALA, Uganda, 25 June--Reproductive freedom and the right to reproductive health care are internationally recognized human rights, but they must be secured through legislation and political activism, according to speakers on the final day of an international conference here on reproductive rights and health.

Those views were expressed as conferees heard two presentations on how to create the conditions necessary for realizing those rights as the Expert Round-table Meeting on Ensuring Reproductive Rights and Implementing Sexual and Reproductive Health Programmes, Including Women's Empowerment, Male Involvement and Human Rights began its final day on Thursday morning.

The meeting also began considering reports by the four working groups on the round table’s themes: policies for sexual and reproductive health; designing quality sexual and reproductive health services; access to services; and creating the conditions for implementing sexual and reproductive health and rights.

About fifty experts and observers from around the world attended the round table. The UNFPA-organized event at the International Conference Centre here was part of ICPD+5, a year-long evaluation of progress in the five years since the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo.

Anika Rahman, Director of the International Programme of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, spoke on "reproductive health as a human right: gender equality and women’s empowerment". She started by explaining the legal foundation for reproductive rights in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and other human rights instruments adopted by the international community since 1945.

Those treaties and conventions oblige governments to ensure that their citizens enjoy their rights. They can be used as instruments of advocacy and as frameworks for activism. Realizing reproductive rights in practice, she said, calls for disseminating information about those rights, building a culture of rights in each country, and developing indicators for monitoring their implementation.

In addition to the right to reproductive health care, Ms. Rahman said, reproductive rights include reproductive self-determination, which encompasses several rights explicitly guaranteed in international conventions: the right to decide the number and spacing of children, the right to marry and to found a family, the right not to be subjected to torture or other cruel inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; the right to modify customs that discriminate against women; the right to be free from sexual assault and exploitation; the right to privacy; the right to life, liberty and security; the right to enjoy scientific progress and to consent to experimentation; and the right to be free from gender discrimination. Each of these rights has specific applications in the reproductive health context.

Advocacy tools useful in attaining reproductive rights, she said, include lobbying for legal and/or policy reforms; court actions or litigation; educating policy makers and the public; building coalitions and global networks for promoting change; mobilizing people; and negotiating with public institutions, including donors.

Before embarking on lobbying efforts or court actions, she continued, advocates must first examine existing laws and how they are interpreted and enforced; and consider whether the public is aware of them. Where further action is required, it is often easier to push for changes in policy rather than laws, since lobbying legislators sometimes requires more time and resources.

The process should be inclusive, she stated. "Lawyers are not the only ones qualified to engage in advocacy."

Barbara Klugman, coordinator of the Women’s Health Project at the University of the Witwatersrand, then reported on the gains made in legislating and implementing reproductive rights in South Africa since the end of apartheid. This progress includes the country’s new constitution, which contains explicit provisions for equality, health care and sexual and reproductive rights; its newly adopted population policy; and the Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1997.

Ms. Klugman described some of the actions undertaken to bring about those changes, and proposed lessons that could be learned from them. First, she said activists should understand the concerns of politicians who can ensure policy change, and then work to convince them that supporting the desired change will help their careers and their constituents. Second, activists must counter misinformation spread by opponents of reproductive rights. In South Africa, for example, advocates for the Termination of Pregnancy Act discredited their opposition by showing it was funded by right-wing political forces outside the country.

Mobilizing mass organizations and getting key members of the public to speak on the issue strengthens advocates’ campaigns, she continued. It is also useful to publicize individual testimonies of real-life experiences, reminding politicians that the questions at hand affect the lives of their constituents. Advocates should also obtain the support of international donors, she suggested.

The presentations of technical papers were followed by discussions. Participants later broke into four working groups for more detailed deliberations. "The working groups are the forum where participants are discussing the central issues of this round table and formulating strategies, taking the speakers’ presentations into consideration," said the Director of the Technical and Policy Division, Mohammed Nizamuddin.

The groups are important because "they bring together a wealth of expertise on quality of reproductive health care, accessibility of services and reproductive rights " said the round table’s general rapporteur, Sunetra Puri. The experts will "assess constraints and formulate forward-looking strategies on those themes," she added.

The round table will end with the adoption of recommendations on key future actions, which will be inputs to The Hague Forum on ICPD+5, in February 1999, and to the June-July 1999 special session of the United Nations General Assembly concluding the review process.

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