Three prominent women reveal why sexual and reproductive rights are a major human rights issue

Thirty years ago, the Cairo Conference and Programme of Action marked a seminal moment for the sexual and reproductive rights movement and its recognition in international law as a human rights issue.

This International Women’s Day, three women who attended the conference reflect on that pivotal moment in 1994, why sexual and reproductive rights matter to them, and what still needs to be done to protect sexual and reproductive rights.

Charlotte Bunch, USA

Charlotte was the founding Director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) at Rutgers University and is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus in Women’s and Gender Studies. She has worked as an activist, writer, and organizer in feminist, LGBT, and human rights movements for over five decades and is currently on the board of the Urgent Action Fund for Feminist Activism.

What were your hopes for women’s rights when you attended the Cairo conference in 1994?

My primary focus and hope at the Cairo Conference was to have women’s reproductive rights recognized as human rights issues. We had succeeded at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 in getting a broad acknowledgment that “women’s rights are human rights” and therefore wanted Cairo to make this principle concrete in relation to women’s control over their bodies. We also sought to frame the development part of the Cairo conference on population and development as a human rights question as part of our women’s rights North-South collaboration.

30 years on, how do you feel about the state of women’s reproductive rights in your country?

In many ways, women’s reproductive rights in the United States have expanded over this past 30 years, but this continues to be a major battle in the country, especially with the right-wing taking control of the Republican Party. The recent US Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, which had made abortion a constitutional right, has been a major setback for this issue. But it has also put it at the centre of political debate in the country. I am optimistic in the long run that most women (and many men) in the US do want these rights and will vote to have them restored.

Can you share a personal anecdote about why this issue matters to you?

I grew up in a small town in New Mexico and saw what happened to a couple of my good friends when they became pregnant in the early 1960s before birth control pills and abortion were readily available. They had to leave high school without graduating and their life dreams were derailed. Like many women my age, I feared getting pregnant when I had sex even with birth control as I saw what they experienced. It left a lasting impression on me about why this issue is so crucial to women’s opportunities in life.

What needs to change to ensure girls and women globally can access sexual and reproductive rights?

Feminist women and men have to gain more power politically around the globe. We have to convince more people that this is a fundamental human right to control one’s own body and that it’s crucial to the ability of women to exercise many of their other social, economic and political human rights.

Leila Hessini, Algeria

Leila is a transnational feminist leader, strategist, and advisor with over 25 years of organizing, advocacy and philanthropic experience advancing human rights, gender equality, and sexual and reproductive rights and justice. Born in Algeria, Leila currently serves as a Senior International Fellow at the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. She also works as Senior Strategist for organizations including the Urgent Action Fund-Africa and Trust Africa, promoting an initiative on Reimagining Feminist and Pan-African Philanthropies.

What were your hopes for women’s rights when you attended the Cairo conference in 1994?

I was fortunate to move to Cairo in 1993 to work with the steering committee for the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). As part of my role, I met with women’s networks from across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to discuss national and regional perspectives for its Programme of Action.

While there were differences across the perspectives and strategies of the global feminist movement, we united around key areas that we knew we wanted to influence to shift from a population control approach to one grounded in women’s rights, poverty elimination and sustainable development.

Since the ICPD was held in Cairo, it was important to uplift the rich and diverse history, realities, and current struggles of feminist movements across the MENA region as these are often not recognized in the global North, purposely ignored or silenced.

The ICPD Programme of Action was a landmark document in many ways because it centred language that feminists advocated for, which included an intersectional human rights approach to women’s sexual and reproductive health, poverty elimination and economic development.

30 years on, how do you feel about the state of women’s reproductive rights globally?

Since the ICPD, more than 60 countries have reformed their abortion laws, including recent efforts to decriminalize and liberalize abortion in Columbia, Argentina, Mexico and Benin. However, four countries, including the United States, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Poland, have curtailed abortion rights.

The United States’ position on abortion is out of line with global trends and is a true disgrace — especially for a country that considers itself a democracy. Women around the world know that the feminist struggle to dismantle sexism and male power and ensure that women have opportunities in life will not be achieved until all women have control over their sexual and reproductive lives.

A truly democratic and just world is one where abortion is considered an integral part of women’s and human lives and a common and normal practice over which women have power and control.

Why does this issue matter to you?

Over my lifetime, I have needed abortions, I have accompanied others who needed abortions, I have given birth to two beautiful daughters, I have parented my own children, and I have supported others to parent, all of which are core to my humanity, my life and my reproductive rights.

What needs to change to ensure girls and women globally can access sexual and reproductive rights?

We need deep and radical change that begins with valuing all girls and women, including those who identify as trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming. This must be supported by deep and systemic change at multiple levels of the ecosystem — individual, institutional, sectoral — to ensure that all women and girls benefit from a broad range of accessible, acceptable, affordable and available sexual and reproductive services and rights.

Marge Berer, UK

Marge was the founding editor of the journal Reproductive Health Matters from 1992-2015 and coordinator and newsletter editor of the International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion from 2015-2023 and will continue to publish the newsletter in 2024. She chaired the first Gender Advisory Panel at the World Health Organization from 1996-2001 and became an Honorary Associate Professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in 2022.

What were your hopes for women’s rights when you attended the Cairo conference in 1994?

Many of us had very high hopes that the meeting would endorse a wide range of women’s rights in relation to sexual and reproductive health, and indeed that happened. A large international group of feminists, coordinated by Adrienne Germain of the International Women’s Health Coalition, held a strategy meeting in Brazil in 1992 and a lot of other non-governmental groups, as well as UN agencies, including WHO and UNFPA, actively participated in the Cairo conference to promote women’s rights issues. But the opposition to the right to safe abortion on the part of many governments was present at the conference, and when it was addressed, the meeting got bogged down in making a difficult compromise, which continues to have a restrictive influence even today. The so-called “compromise” was that abortion should be safe where it is legal, yet lack of safety occurs mainly where abortion is illegal, and that it should not be used as a method of family planning, even though that is often what abortion is used for when contraception fails or is not used. The intention of the latter was that abortion should be used only in cases of risk to health and life. Both of these “compromises” claimed to greatly restrict the permissible grounds.

30 years on, how do you feel about the state of women’s reproductive rights in your country?

In the UK, sexual and reproductive health services have steadily improved. In Northern Ireland, the abortion law was finally changed after The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was called in to make a ruling. But in the USA (I’m a dual national) the situation in relation to abortion is akin to a civil war between states dominated by anti-abortion politics and states dominated by pro-choice politics, with an anti-abortion Supreme Court, and the rule of law and women’s rights are being violated in a myriad of ways.

Why does this issue matter to you?

I had a relationship with a refugee who was learning English in the school where I taught. One night he had no condoms. Aww, he said, one time won’t matter. But it did, I got pregnant. At which point he told me he was married with four children in his home country, and I never heard from him again. This is not an unusual story.

What needs to change to ensure girls and women globally can access sexual and reproductive rights?
Respect for girls and women and support for all sexual and reproductive rights via laws, policies and services so that they have the autonomy and means to have the children they want and not be forced to have the children they do not want and cannot cope with, whatever their reasons.

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