There’s still a long way to go on the road to sexual rights for all
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There’s still a long way to go on the road to sexual rights for all

IF you compare gender equality today to just a few decades ago, for most of us it feels like we’ve progressed leaps and bounds since the Mad Men and obedient housewives of the 1960s.

On the long road to gender equality and sexual autonomy, we’ve had some big wins recently. Just last week, India finally decriminalised homosexuality; the #MeToo movement is ruffling feathers in the highest offices in the world; the gender pay gap is becoming a mark against management as companies are named and shamed for not keeping pace; and many of us are able to freely decide if, when and how to have a family.

But while progress has certainly be made, we can never get complacent, warns Regional Director of UNFPA for Asia and the Pacific, Bjorn Andersson, as the second we look away, it could all be gone.

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“We have made great achievements when it comes to laws and gender equality,” he said at the presentation for the new Guttmacher-Lancet Commission in Bangkok on Thursday.

“But we cannot rest for one-minute thinking that progress will last forever, they can change overnight.”

The Guttmacher-Lancet Commission – an international collaboration of 16 global health, development, and human rights experts from around the world – shows us exactly why we must keep fighting and reminds us that, what may feel like progress for us, does not include everyone.

Focusing on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) the commission paints a picture of a job not even close to being finished. One in which there are huge gaps in SRHR around the world that leave the most vulnerable in our communities, even more vulnerable.

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Each year in developing regions, more than 30 million women do not give birth in a health facility, more than 45 million have inadequate or no antenatal care, and more than 200 million women want to avoid pregnancy but are not using modern contraception.

Worldwide, 25 million unsafe abortions take place each year and, on top of that, nearly one in three women will experience intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence.

The report found that in total, almost all 4.3 billion people of reproductive age worldwide will have inadequate sexual and reproductive health services over the course of their lives.

With figures like that, you would think SRHR would be a top priority for governments. And yet it continues to get, not just overlooked but in some cases, actively opposed.

Quite often it can be customs and traditions in a country that hinder women from receiving the healthcare they need. And sometimes it’s just down to good old-fashioned control, says Andersson.

“It’s a way for men to control women and women’s bodies,” he said when asked why there was still such strong opposition to SRHR. “Controlling women’s reproduction and the number of children. It then also becomes about the status of women in society.”

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But this doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause; it just needs a new approach. And crucially an approach that engages men to support the cause.

“The world today requires a new, bold, comprehensive agenda to achieve sexual and reproductive health and rights for all,” said Sivananthi Thanenthiran, Executive Director of The Asian-Pacific Resource & Research Centre for Women (ARROW), a member of the Guttmacher-Lancet Commission Advisory Group.

“[We need] an agenda that encompasses the right of all individuals to make decisions about their bodies and lives—free of stigma, discrimination and coercion—and to have access to essential sexual and reproductive health interventions.”

The report points out that we already have all the knowledge and tools needed to ensure everyone has access to respectful and safe sexual health services, governments just need to make sure they implement them properly.

The commission suggests some high-priority actions to get achieve it. These include liberalising abortion laws and ensuring access to safe abortion services; ensuring teenagers have access to reliable sexual health information and services without discrimination or judgement; providing additional support to marginalised groups such as refugees and the LGBTQI community; developing policies to specifically target gender-based violence; and crucially engaging men to support women’s rights.

If women’s standing in society improves, the belief is this will have a knock on and the rest will follow. As the report points out: “To advance health, we must advance rights.”