UNFPA - United Nations Population Fund

State of World Population 2005



© Chris de Bode/Panos Pictures
An old woman prays for peace in the Oromo Camp for internally displaced people in Uganda. For 19
years the Lord's Resistance Army has terrorized the people living in the Northern provinces.

The Promise of Human Rights

-Human Rights and Poverty Reduction

-The Human Rights of Girls and Women

-Human Rights: Essentials for the MDGs

-Reproductive Rights in Practice

-Rights, Gender and Culture: Seeking Convergence

-Support for Disenfranchised Groups

Rights, Gender and Culture: Seeking Convergence

The concept of human rights binds the world's inhabitants into a common humanity. Human rights standards globally adopted make clear the distinction between respect for the rich diversity of the world's cultures and customs and the rejection of harmful practices that endanger women and girls. CEDAW and CRC, among other international agreements, make this explicit, by clarifying that governments should refrain from invoking custom, tradition or religious beliefs to justify harmful practices that interfere with human rights, and that also constitute forms of violence and violations of women's reproductive rights.(51) Nevertheless, cultural relativism, and the label of international human rights as "Western", have been used to legitimize harmful practices and laws that perpetuate gender inequities.(52) Existing standards, however, reflect a clear international consensus to guide national action and accountability.

A number of harmful practices are deeply rooted in tradition. Though many reflect an underlying gender bias, they have been practised by parents and grandparents and passed from one generation to the next. They are thus commonly accepted facets of community life. But culture is not static: It is dynamic and learned.(53) People are not passive products of their cultures but are active participants in interpreting and shaping them. As experience around the world has shown, communities that understand the dangers posed by certain practices, and question them from within their own cultural lens, can mobilize to change or eliminate them.

Culturally sensitive approaches can be effective in promoting human rights and gender equality in diverse national and local contexts.(54) Such approaches emphasize the importance of understanding the complexities of the sociocultural context in which development processes operate. They assess the roles and perspectives of a range of actors, and look at how changes at both policy and societal levels can be effected. This includes analyzing local power structures and listening to the views of local leaders and custodians of prevailing cultural norms and beliefs. It also includes identifying sub-cultures and ensuring the participation of those whose voices are not traditionally heard, such as women, adolescents, ethnic minorities and others. Culturally sensitive approaches centre on community dialogue and awareness-raising about human rights and gender issues, using language and social symbols that the community can internalize.

"We did not know the law existed. The Users' Committee is helping us to understand that we have rights."

- Woman from the Province of Manabí, Ecuador

Efforts to outlaw discriminatory practices such as child marriage, honour killings, acid burning and the inheritance or "cleansing" of widows, among others, are unlikely to succeed unless they are accompanied by practical measures to promote gender-equitable norms that respect the rights of girls and women. For instance, some countries in sub- Saharan Africa and Asia have outlawed female genital mutilation/cutting, prenatal sex selection or child marriage, but find it difficult to enforce these bans. As long as daughters face discrimination and are devalued, especially in the context of poor families' limited choices, simply outlawing child marriage will not succeed. Similarly, it may be difficult to eliminate female genital mutilation/cutting where it is closely tied to a woman's marriage prospects and social identity. The practice is often encouraged by relatives and signals a girl's entry into a position of greater social recognition and status.

Transformations in gender attitudes and norms are possible, however, especially when the views and concerns of the community are addressed. Successful attempts to reduce female genital mutilation/cutting, for example, have been accompanied by acceptance of non-harmful rituals to serve the same social purpose, thus preserving values important to the community.(55) The participation of socially prominent individuals, including religious leaders, can be crucial in changing social norms. A key element in the Islamic Republic of Iran's dramatic success with expanding access to family planning (the country's total fertility rate has dropped from an average of over seven children per woman to 2.3 over the last two decades(56)) was the full support of imams. They encouraged smaller families and issued religious edicts that endorsed a full range of contraceptive methods, including male sterilization.(57) In Yemen, a guide was produced for imams and other religious leaders that relates family planning and reproductive health to the Koran and stresses the Prophet's teachings on the equality of women and men. In Cambodia, partnerships with Buddhist monks and nuns are helping to address the threat of HIV to young people.(58)

By building on positive belief systems and cultural and religious values espoused by local communities, and raising awareness of the harm caused by gender stereotypes and related practices, culturally sensitive approaches serve to gain ground for women's human rights and gender equality.


Quality of care is about rights as well as services. When individuals and communities understand their rights, they can demand appropriate care. This demand can, in turn, influence service providers and health systems by improving their understanding of how to supply better services. This is the premise behind the Stronger Voices for Reproductive Health initiative launched in 2001 by UNFPA in collaboration with ILO, UNICEF and WHO, and funded by the United Nations Foundation. By providing people with information about their rights, the initiative has mobilized residents of communities in India, Kyrgyzstan, Mauritania, Nepal, Peru and the United Republic of Tanzania to work together for improvements in their lives.

In four rural provinces or oblasts of Kyrgyzstan, the initiative has expanded awareness about the country's 2000 Law on Reproductive Rights. Communities, providers and local administration officials meet regularly to discuss the law, and local police, teachers and lawyers have been trained on reproductive rights. One of the major changes is that communities are now speaking out against the traditional practice of "bride-napping". Families are rescuing daughters who have been taken as brides against their will and tribal leaders are reviewing bride-napping cases.

"Because of sexual and reproductive health problems and domestic violence, some families had problems, which were discussed on the village level. There were no common views on such issues. We did not know about the law on reproductive rights. We thought it was forbidden to write about sexual and reproductive health issues. Now we know about the law and our rights."

- Aldayarova, 37, Kyrzgyzstan

"We never thought that it would happen to our daughter. Zarema went out with this young man only once. After some days.we were informed that she had been bridenapped. Our first thought was to bring her back home. But we respect our traditions, so we decided to leave her in that family for the time being. Later we met Zarema several times. I became more and more certain that she would not be happy in that family. So after two weeks, we brought her back. All participants in the workshops came to one conclusion: that first of all it is necessary to protect the interests and rights of individuals rather than society's..Four more families made the same decision; they did not sacrifice their daughters."

- Zarema's mother, Kyrgyzstan

Peru's poor, indigenous populations, especially adolescent girls, face economic, sociocultural and gender barriers to reproductive health services. Stronger Voices operates in Lima's most densely populated urban district, San Juan de Lurigacho, where one third of the population is young and living in extreme poverty, and in the Amazonian jungle region of Pucallpa. Working with young people, health providers and parents, the initiative is reducing the stigma attached to adolescents' access to reproductive health services.

Young people are actively speaking up in community public forums. Adolescents and health care providers have held joint workshops to build trust and decide how to make services more youth-friendly. The DiscoAIDS event in Pucallpa, complete with lights, music and videos, drew more than 600 young people and 23 teachers to discuss prevention of sexually transmitted infections and HIV, condom use and peer pressure. Adolescent Health Policy Guidelines were developed by the Government through a participatory process with youth and other civil society organizations.

"We have to take care of ourselves, make our own decisions, have our own ideas and be more responsible, because we are the only ones who are going to protect us, who are going to look out for us. We are responsible for our future."

- Adolescent Girl, San Juan de Lurigacho

"Many patients come once, and if you haven't treated them well, next time they don't come."

- Health-care provider, Pucallpa

In India, women's self-help groups in Haryana State now sit at the negotiating table with district authorities at health services planning meetings and raise their reproductive health and rights concerns with service providers and panchayats (local village councils). Operating as "watch groups", they monitor the quality of care and safeguard women's rights. Providers are trained to consider client perspectives on the quality of care. The participatory process has broken the "culture of silence" that prevailed in the communities on harmful practices such as prenatal sex selection, violence and child marriage. Women in the community have become more forthcoming in communicating about human rights issues.

"After the training, I discussed the sexual and reproductive health issue with both of my adolescent daughters, and also with my husband and neighbors. We discussed rights in much detail. Now, in case of any violence against women in our vicinity, we will not tolerate silently as we used to do before."

- Woman participant in a village of Haryana State, India

Support for Disenfranchised Groups >>
<< Reproductive Rights in Practice