In Denmark, a universal health care system and emphasis on reproductive rights mean that Danish women generally enjoy the freedom to choose if, and when, to become mothers. But for the 225 million women around the globe who don’t have access to contraception, the lack of choice influences every aspect of their lives and prevents many of them from breaking out of poverty, a condition that disproportionately affects women worldwide.
“It keeps women in conditions where they can’t work and are confined to the home, which affects how women are valued in society, and further feeds into the idea that they don’t have bodily autonomy,” says Preethi Sundaram, a Danish researcher working for the International Planned Parenthood Foundation (IPPF) in the UK.
The now-Londoner is back in her hometown of Copenhagen for the 2016 Women Deliver Conference, which assembled leading advocates for women’s rights over three days to discuss strategies for women’s empowerment worldwide. Sundaram presented a recently-released IPFF report that stressed the links between poverty and the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of women.
According to the researcher, SRHR has long been an issue on the fringes of development discourse, not least because it deals with highly stigmatised topics such as sex and abortion.
But Sundaram argues that if we are to empower the world’s most vulnerable women and ensure their economic independence, it’s critical that we channel aid resources toward fighting for the full realisation of their sexual and reproductive rights.
A poverty issue
“For us at IPPF, sexual and reproductive health and rights are a poverty issue and a human rights issue,” says Sundaram.
The researcher points out that for every year a girl remains in school, her future earnings increase by ten percent. Early marriage, on the other hand, not only means girls are pulled out of schooling prematurely, it also jeopardises their health, affecting the rest of their lives.
These links also mean that women with poorly-realised SRHR are prevented from contributing to a country’s GDP and economic growth. Sundaram is critical of what she calls “instrumentalist” development rhetoric, however, which whittles female empowerment down to workforce participation or pure economic output.
“The focus of development discourse is often on women’s contributions to economic growth, but we need to look closer at women’s working conditions. Women are often subjected to violence and sexual harassment in low-paid work. We try to think more about how SRHR really affects women’s empowerment, both in terms of whether they can access work and also the conditions of that work, and the onward ripple effects on their families.”
Despite their importance, SRHR are among the most highly-politicised issues, even at the highest levels of political negotiation, which makes it challenging to include them in mainstream debates and to translate discussion into effective strategies.
“When you get to the UN level, issues like abortion, LGBTIQ rights and rights for sex workers are the fundamentally divisive issues. There’s also a massive disjuncture between the talk of human rights and the fact that SRHR often aren’t valued enough in the human rights discourse.”
There are also cultural barriers. Sundaram believes that one of the most effective tools for securing stronger SRHR protections is providing comprehensive sexual education to young people worldwide, particularly between the ages of 10 to 14. The organisation considers this a critical age to teach young people about sexual rights and health, including issues such as consent. This kind of outreach can be highly contentious in communities with strong taboos around sex, however, particularly with respect to girls and adolescents.
“It can be difficult to talk about these issues because they’re so intimate and private, but we also need to see information as a right that can’t be taken away from us, and we need to demand it.”
IPPF’s recommendation, she says, is for governments to implement strong CSE programmes and to support and resource educators, in rolling out sexual education to young people, both inside and outside of school.
“Norm changing must happen in tandem with education.”
Stigma and Misogyny
Even in high-income countries that offer sexual education in schools, women’s sexual and reproductive rights can be threatened. Sundaram points to the politicisation of women’s reproductive rights in the United States, where the legality of abortion remains a deeply contested issue, and one currently under consideration by the US Supreme Court.
“It always amazes me how the US political battlefield always comes down to women’s reproductive rights. One in three women have abortions, and yet it’s such a stigmatised issue,” says the researcher, who says part of the problem is a patriarchal system that fails to acknowledge women’s bodily autonomy.
“When we’re talking about abortion stigma, we’re really talking about misogyny. It’s about the fact that we don’t want women to control their own bodies.”
Meanwhile, Sundaram says Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands are pioneers in providing comprehensive sexual education, pointing to their highly engaged programmes in their own countries.
“Denmark is a champion of sexual rights – high quality services and education are provided, and there is outreach to marginalised groups. It’s critical for these countries to be champions of SRHR issues worldwide.”
The conference in its capital city was also an opportunity for Denmark to pledge further support for global SRHR initiatives. At the event, Foreign Minister Kristian Jensen announced that he would direct 65 million kroner to AmplifyChange, a foundation advocating for SRHR with a special focus on fighting female circumcision, child marriage and abortion stigma.
While Denmark has traditionally been generous in its support for developing countries, last year it made significant cuts to foreign aid in response to the refugee crisis, slashing funding by 4.4 billion kroner. Neighbouring Finland, Norway and Sweden have also made reductions to their foreign aid budgets.
For Sundaram, the cuts to Nordic development budgets are cause for real concern.
“In the context of the refugee crisis, you see money shifted from different pots which will impact development aid. We ultimately want ‘southern’ countries to fund their own comprehensive sexual education, but in the meantime, we must keep investing in these programmes in the Global South until that becomes a reality.” M