At Women Deliver, a message is extolled throughout the dozens of sessions, plenaries, panels and press conferences: “Invest in women and girls, it pays.” This simple message, however, has several layers of subtext. Many of the conference’s attendees are emphasizing the broader concepts that underpin it – one of the great takeaways of this conference, at least in my mind, is that it will take more than an additional $12 billion to ensure that women and girls around the world are able to fully realize their rights. Among these concepts, is the notion that women’s s rights are, first and foremost, human rights.
I listened to Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and current president of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative, speak about the importance of framing maternal health with a human rights approach. She eloquently articulated the need for a holistic human rights approach towards the issues affecting girls and women. Robinson noted that so much of what we talk about when we talk about improving maternal health and reproductive rights is related to broader, human rights issues: access to health care and family planning, nutrition, religious and cultural dimensions, discrimination, domestic violence, early childhood marriages, to name a few.
And indeed, there is a very strong case to be made for envisaging maternal health as a broader human rights issue. Ever since the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, women’s rights are being increasingly framed as human rights. This is critical because it can help circumvent the barrage of opposition typically put up by conservative groups. Religious leaders, right-leaning or traditional family-oriented groups have all at some point or another been antagonistic to the notion of women having control of their bodies and fertility.
I attended two panels today where this point was driven home very vividly. First, was the panel entitled “Delivering Solutions at the Margin: Reaching the Hard to Reach”. The conversation, which was moderated by Mary Robinson, featured several activists and advocates for women’s rights in vulnerable environments. One speaker, Martha Sanchez, who works for organizations advocating the rights of indigenous women in Central America and Mexico, spoke powerfully on this issue. She explained that issues related to indigenous women’s rights and maternal health were often circumscribed by structural discrimination and stigma. Dealing with this marginalization requires a holistic approach: you cannot look at maternal health in a silo: it belongs to a much broader picture of persistent inequity and unequal access.
In the same vein, Malika Saada Saar, president of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, spoke of the oft-forgotten American women who are not able to avail themselves of their rights. Specifically, Saar discussed the case of pregnant women in U.S. prisons who are shackled when they begin labor, and until after they deliver their baby. Often, these new mothers have to breastfeed their newborns while still shackled, and then have to deal with the trauma of having their children taken away from them and put into foster care. She spoke movingly about how this “drachonian practice” is, in effect, depriving women of their rights and is tantamount to “cruel and unusual punishment”, thus establishing the link between women’s rights, human rights and legal protection.
Fulfilling Millennium Development Goal 5 (reducing maternal mortality by three quarters and ensuring universal access to reproductive health) is not just an issue of financing programs that build clinics, train health workers, and provide services. It is an issue of fair, transparent, equal and indiscriminate access. Maternal health and reproductive rights are also fundamentally part of a broader narrative of respecting and promoting human rights. There are several international legal instruments which should, in theory, guarantee women’s rights.
The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is one of those treaties which, in theory, were it fully enforced, would ensure (among other things) that women would have safe and equal access to health care. Regarding maternal health specifically, Article 12 of CEDAW states that”States Parties shall ensure to women appropriate services in connection with pregnancy, confinement and the post-natal period, granting free services where necessary, as well as adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation.”
“Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights” is the rallying call for those who advocate for a comprehensive approach that tackles the complex, multi-dimensional issue of maternal health and reproductive rights. In her concluding remarks at this afternoon’s panel, Mary Robinson spoke of the need to be proactive in dealing with the barriers that “dehumanize us.” She urged attendees to “go beyond the statistics”, to really look at whether people at the margins are being reached and their needs, addressed.
Poverty, inequality and discrimination are among some of the structural barriers that need to be done away with in order for not just MDG5 to be achieved, but also the full spectrum of women’s rights to be realized.