During the 1990s, a series of important United Nations conferences emphasized that the well-being of individuals, and respect for their human rights, should be central to all development strategies. Particular emphasis was given to reproductive rights as a cornerstone of development, and to empowerment of women as being an important element in ensuring the exercise of these rights.
Guided by the ICPD and other international mandates, UNFPA takes a rights-based approach to reproductive and sexual health. This includes support for reproductive health services that protect a woman's general health and well-being, that allow for well- informed decisions, and are respectful of individual choices.
Attaining the goals of sustainable, equitable development requires that individuals are able to exercise control over their sexual and reproductive lives. This includes the rights to:
Reproductive and sexual health as a component of overall health, throughout the life cycle, for both men and women
Reproductive decision-making, including voluntary choice in marriage, family formation and determination of the number, timing and spacing of one's children and the right to have access to the information and means needed to exercise voluntary choice
Equality and equity for men and women, to enable individuals to make free and informed choices in all spheres of life, free from discrimination based on gender
Sexual and reproductive security, including freedom from sexual violence and coercion, and the right to privacy.
Women's ability to exercise their reproductive rights is integrally related to their empowerment. This is the process by which unequal power relations are transformed and women gain greater equality with men.
At the government level, women's empowerment implies the extension of all fundamental social, economic and political rights to women.
On the individual level, empowerment implies women gaining the power to express and defend their rights and gain greater self-esteem and control over their own lives and personal and social relationships.
Empowerment of women was a central policy goal of both the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994 and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. Women's empowerment has also been underscored in agreements of other important international, regional and national conferences during the past decade, including:
the fifth-year review of ICPD implementation (ICPD+5) in 1999
the World Food Summit in 1996, Habitat II in 1996
the World Summit for Social Development in 1995
the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993
[R]eproductive rights embrace certain human rights that are already recognized in national laws, international human rights documents and other consensus documents. These rights rest on the recognition of the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. It also includes the right of all to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence as expressed in human rights documents.
--ICPD Programme of Action, para 7.3