“With many countries on lockdown and health systems struggling to cope, sexual and reproductive health services are being sidelined and gender-based violence is on the rise”.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) projects that if lockdown measures continue for six months with major disruptions to health services, 47 million women in low- and middle-income countries may not be able to access modern contraceptives. This would result in seven million unintended pregnancies.
Moreover, some 31 million additional cases of gender-based violence can also be expected.
“Every year, millions of girls are subjected to practices that harm them physically and emotionally, robbing them of their right to reach their full potential”, said the Secretary-General.
According to UNFPA’s State of World Population 2020, more than four million girls will be subjected to female genital mutilation and 12 million forced to marry this year.
“Lockdowns stemming from the pandemic are expected to make matters even worse”, acknowledged Mr. Guterres.
Safeguard hard-won gains
Decades of experience and research show that bottom-up, grassroots approaches can change gender-biased norms and attitudes, the top UN official said.
Through international declarations and agreements, the word has committed to ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health care; eliminating the unmet need for contraception; and ending all forms of violence against women and girls by 2030.
The UN chief stressed that “we cannot allow the pandemic to reverse progress we have made towards these goals”.
“On this World Population Day, let us act to safeguard sexual and reproductive health care, protect the health and rights of women and girls, and end gender-based violence”, concluded the Secretary-General. “The pandemic has made our jobs much harder, but we must prevail”.
Long road ahead
UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem underscored that women have a right to make their own decisions about “whether, when and how often to become pregnant”.
That right was reaffirmed in 1994 in Cairo at the landmark International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), where 179 governments agreed that sexual and reproductive health is the foundation for sustainable development.
Yet, despite considerable gains over the past 25 years, there is a long road ahead to live up to the promise of Cairo, with too many women still unable to enjoy their rights.
“More than 200 million women and girls want to delay or prevent pregnancy but don’t have the means”, explained Dr. Kanem, noting that the most vulnerable and marginalized women and girls “who face the greatest gaps in services”.
Against the backdrop of more unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions, pregnant girls shamed out of school and that more women and girls are dying, she spell out: “The cost of inaction is simply too high”.
“There is no time to waste”, underscored the UNFPA chief, “our future depends on it”.
Tear down inequality
As evidenced by the alarming number of gender-biased sex selections, “women face discrimination even before they are born”, observed UNFPA India Representative and Bhutan Country Director Argentina Matavel.
And systemic violations of women’s rights continue throughout their life cycles.
She painted a picture of a women being denied their “God-given full potential” while robbing society of contributions from half the population.
“If one could stop for just a minute to compute the aggregate loss in productivity alone, we would have economists and politicians at the forefront of the struggle to tear down the roots of inequality from society”, Ms. Matavel stated.
To empower women, “each one of us has the responsibility to challenge our own stereotypes, the UN envoy argued.
She also urged Governments to recalibrate policy and programmatic changes to benefit women, along with putting in place mechanisms to address development gaps, especially for women and girls “who are invariably at the bottom of the ‘pyramid of the vulnerable.’”
“Humanity will be as strong as the weakest of our members – same for nations, and families”, upheld the UNFPA representative.
Restore sexual, reproductive health rights lost during COVID, rights expert urges
Sexual and reproductive health rights, are human rights, the independent UN expert on the right to health reminded Member States in the General Assembly on Wednesday, saying that it was essential to restore services in the field, that have been eroded during the COVID-19 pandemic
“Millions of women globally had limited or no access to maternal and new-born healthcare, some 14 million women lost access to contraception, and specialized services for victims of gender-based violence became inaccessible, when they were needed most”, said Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng.
The Special Rapporteur pointed out that lockdowns, movement restrictions and diversion of funds due to COVID-19 have “jeopardized access to essential sexual and reproductive health services”.
In presenting her report on the effect of the pandemic on physical and mental health services, she also spoke of “new measures and laws in place across regions, further restricting access to safe abortion, a component of sexual and reproductive services encompassed in the right to health”.
Reversing a legacy
As part of the right to health, the UN expert called on States to move beyond the COVID-19 pandemic to rebuild and strengthen health systems for advancing sexual and reproductive health rights for all.
“Governments must remove obstacles and ensure full access to quality services, including maternal health care, contraception and abortion services, screening for reproductive cancers and comprehensive sexual education”, she said.
However, Dr. Mofokeng noted that many obstacles continue to stand between individuals and their exercise of their rights to health, rooted in patriarchy and colonialism, and others in structural and systemic inequalities.
“Patriarchal oppression is universal, permeates all societies and is at the very origin of the erosion of autonomy and the control of girls and women’s bodies and sexuality to the detriment of their enjoyment of sexual and reproductive rights”, she spelled out.
“Colonialism has permeated patriarchy across regions and its legacy continues today through laws, policies and practices that deny or restrict sexual and reproductive rights and criminalize gender diverse identities and consensual adult same-sex acts”, added the Special Rapporteur.
Rooted in law
She reminded governments that sexual and reproductive health rights are rooted in binding human rights treaties, jurisprudence, and consensus outcome documents of international conferences.
“I call on States to respect and protect key principles of autonomy, bodily integrity, dignity and well-being of individuals, especially in relation to sexual and reproductive health rights”, she said.
“I pledge to engage with States and all relevant actors to uphold the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”.
UN: Paraguay violated indigenous rights
Paraguay’s failure to prevent the toxic contamination of indigenous people’s traditional lands by commercial farming violates their rights and their sense of “home”, the UN Human Rights Committee said in a landmark ruling on Wednesday.
The Committee, which is made up of 18 independent experts from across the world, monitors countries’ adherence to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Lands represent ‘home’
The decision on Paraguay (in Spanish) marked the first time it has affirmed that for indigenous people, “home” should be understood in the context of their special relationship with their territories, including their livestock, crops and way of life.
“For indigenous peoples, their lands represent their home, culture and community. Serious environmental damages have severe impacts on indigenous people’s family life, tradition, identity and even lead to the disappearance of their community. It dramatically harms the existence of the culture of the group as a whole,” said Committee member Hélène Tigroudja.
The decision stems from a complaint filed more than a decade ago on behalf of some 201 Ava Guarani people of the Campo Agua’e indigenous community, located in Curuguaty district in eastern Paraguay.
The area where they live is surrounded by large commercial farms which produce genetically modified soybeans through fumigation, a process which involves the use of banned pesticides.
Traditional life affected
Fumigation occurred continuously for more than 10 years and affected the indigenous community’s whole way of life, including killing livestock, contaminating waterways and harming people’s health.
The damage also had severe intangible repercussions, according to the UN committee. The disappearance of natural resources needed for hunting, fishing and foraging resulted in the loss of traditional knowledge. For example, ceremonial baptisms no longer take place as necessary materials no longer exist.
“By halting such ceremonies, children are denied a rite crucial to strengthening their cultural identity,” the Committee said. “Most alarmingly, the indigenous community structure is being eroded and disintegrated as families are forced to leave their land.”
The indigenous community brought the case to the Human Rights Committee after a lengthy and unsatisfactory administrative and judicial process in Paraguay’s courts.
“More than 12 years after the victims filed their criminal complaint regarding the fumigation with toxic agrochemicals, to which they have continued to be exposed throughout this period, the investigations have not progressed in any meaningful way and the State party has not justified the delay,” the Committee said in its decision.
Members found Paraguay did not adequately monitor the fumigation and failed to prevent contamination, adding “this failure in its duty to provide protection made it possible for the large-scale, illegal fumigation to continue for many years, destroying all components of the indigenous people’s family life and home.”
The Committee recommended that Paraguay complete the criminal and administrative proceedings against all parties responsible and make full reparation to the victims.
The authorities are also urged to take all necessary measures, in close consultation with the indigenous community, to repair the environmental damage, and to work to prevent similar violations from occurring in the future.
Girlpower from Tajikistan to Costa Rica, helps narrow gender gap online
A marked global gender gap in terms of internet use continues to grow, but from Syria to Costa Rica, girls are increasingly pushing back to try and narrow the gap.
The gender gap for online users has widened from 11 per cent in 2013 to 17 per cent in 2019, and in the world’s least developed countries, it reaches 43 per cent.
This year, to mark International Day of the Girl Child, taking place on Monday, the UN is showing how the pandemic has accelerated the use of digital platforms, but also highlighting girls’ different realities when it comes to getting online.
Below, you can read stories from across the UN, featuring how five girls, from five different countries, are using technology to build a better future.
In his message for the day, the UN Secretary-General noted that these girls and all the others “are part of a digital generation.”
“It is our responsibility to join with them in all their diversity, amplify their power and solutions as digital change-makers, and address the obstacles they face in the digital space”, he said.
The path to girls’ digital equality is steep. In more than two thirds of all countries, girls make up only 15 per cent of graduates in science, technology, engineering and maths, known by the acronym, STEM.
In middle and higher-income countries, only 14 per cent of girls who were top performers in science or mathematics expected to work in science and engineering, compared to 26 per cent of top-performing boys.
“Girls have equal ability and immense potential in these fields, and when we empower them, everyone benefits,” Mr. Guterres said.
He recalled seeing this long before he began his political career, when he was a teacher in Lisbon, Portugal, and “witnessed the power of education to uplift individuals and communities.”
“That experience has guided my vision for gender equality in education ever since”, he explained. “Investments in closing the digital gender divide yield huge dividends for all.”
Tied to this, the UN has a new platform, called Generation Equality Action Coalition on Technology and Innovation, where governments, civil society, the private sector and young leaders, are coming together to support girls’ digital access, skills and creativity.
“The United Nations is committed to working with girls so that this generation, whoever they are and whatever their circumstances, can fulfil their potential”, Mr. Guterres assured.
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