The advancement of gender equality cannot be separated from the advancement of women’s and girls’ health, freedom of choice (also regarding their bodies), and equal participation in education, the workforce and politics. Moreover, «those issues are all directly impacted by the availability and accessibility of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services,*» confirms the new report by the not-for-profit organization Population Institute, “Connecting the Dots”.
In its report, the organization, which seeks to promote universal sexual and reproductive health and rights, by underlying the link between gender equality and the accessibility of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, emphasizes the need for increased financial and political support in these areas as crucial steps to advance parity.
In other words, even if the goals are universally agreed upon, the world still struggles to sprint toward gender parity. That is due to girls’ and women’s exposure to deep and persistent differences of opportunity in accessing education, autonomy, and (political) power. And also, because the basic needs of their health and reproductive care, prevention or even sexual education are, in many cases, limited. If the progress continues at this pace, according to the World Economic Forum, it will take 132 to close the global gender gap. And according to the U.N. Women, equality will be achieved in 286 years.
The bigger picture
Where do we stand in terms of reproductive rights and access to health care for women around the world? In the spring of 2022, the U.N.’s sexual and reproductive health agency (UNFPA) reported that nearly half of all pregnancies, or around 121 million each year, worldwide are unintended. Moreover, it considers that, where data is available, still a quarter of all women feel unable to say no to demands for sex.
Over 60% of the mentioned unintended pregnancies end in abortion, but about 45% are considered unsafe, so much so that they account for 5 to 13% of all maternal deaths. The ongoing wars, like those in Ukraine and Gaza, are negatively affecting the general picture in terms of unwanted pregnancies access to contraception and healthcare, and are determining a substantial increase in sexual violence.
In terms of lack of sexual or reproductive healthcare, access to the right form of contraception or the exposure to harmful norms surrounding women’s sexual and reproductive care is widespread in more vulnerable regions – those affected by ongoing conflicts, but also those more environmentally at risk. Yet, push backwards are evident even in more advanced and developed areas. Trends here are challenging acquired rights and mining investments for services supporting women’s health support and wellbeing.
Education and sexual rights
Presenting the report “Connecting the Dots” earlier this month, Bridget Kelly, Director of Research for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights at Population Institute, stressed and highlighted a sometimes overlooked link. «Why are SRHR [Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights] important to achieve gender equality and empowerment? Evidence shows us that girls’ education, a top gender priority, and SRHR have a mutually reinforcing relationship. Early marriage and unintended pregnancy can both be a cause of and a reason as to why girls are out of school. Of the 261 million adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 living in the global South, an estimated 32 million are sexually active and do not want to have a child in the next two years. Yet, 14 million of these adolescent girls have an unmet need for modern contraception and are thus at an elevated risk of unintended pregnancy. So, the barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health services puts the U.S. commitment to girls’ education at risk.»
When better educated, with better awareness of the choices they have and better access to prevention and care, more girls will avoid the risk of marrying too young and of early pregnancies. They will be better prepared to choose for themselves and enter in bigger numbers the labour market. If they decide to and are given more space and support to become activists or leaders, they can contribute positively to peace and security efforts.
When girls and young women are kept from learning, where they have reduced access to care, safe conditions and improper services, they remain highly exposed to exploitation, abuse, poor life conditions and dependence, with all the consequences that this also means in mere economic costs for societies.
In 1994, in Cairo, 179 UN member states agreed to the implementation of a plan to expand access to reproductive healthcare and family planning significantly. According to the plan, 1/3 of the costs would come from donor nations – an input of around 4.2 billion $. According to the calculation by the Guttmacher Institute this March, with the contribution of 1.74 billion from the U.S., the results would be:
- 96.1 million women and couples with contraceptive services and supplies;
- from 111 million per year to 32.4 million fewer unintended pregnancies, including 12.7 million fewer unplanned births;
- 10.6 million fewer unsafe abortions and 54,000 fewer maternal deaths.
- Moreover, for every dollar spent on contraceptive care, 3 dollars are saved on maternal and child care.
These numbers may be difficult to achieve if the current trends persist. In the last couple of years, many of the States have been introducing conservative policies regulating reproductive rights and women’s sexual healthcare. There has been a surge of bills limiting access to safe abortions, counselling or funding to independent organizations.
As under the spotlight as they are, the U.S. are but one example of legislation that still limit women’s decisions, especially if and when it comes to abortion rights that, in some cases, put women’s life at risk. In countries like Italy, where abortion is legal under certain limitations, almost 70% of gynaecologists say they are conscientious objectors. Or Spain, where women may travel very far to find a provider.
* “Connecting the Dots: Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights as Prerequisite for Global Gender Equality and Empowerment”, Population Institute, 2023
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