Sexual and reproductive health rights at the heart of gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment beyond 2015: Lakshmi Puri

Opening remarks by Lakshmi Puri, UN Women Deputy Executive Director, at the 2013 EuroNGOs conference on “Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in the Post-2015 Agenda,” on 24 October 2013 in Berlin, Germany.

Date: Thursday, October 24, 2013

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Good morning to you all,

Serge (Rabier), thank you for this introduction. I would like to thank you, as well as the whole EuroNGOs steering committee for inviting me to represent UN Women at this important conference.

Dr. Babatunde, it is always inspiring to hear your speak. I am pleased to join you here today – one more proof of the close partnership that UNFPA and UN Women enjoy as “sisters-in-arms” in the UN System.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I come here today with warm greetings from our new Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. As you know, she does not only bring to her new position a distinguished political career – having been the Deputy President of South Africa, among other official positions – she is also known as a staunch advocate of sexual and reproductive health and rights. You can count on her and on UN Women to work hand-in-hand with all of you and with UNFPA in pushing this agenda forward.

A defining moment
This conference takes place at a strategic moment. The weeks and months ahead will be crucial for the elaboration of the post-2015 development agenda. More than ever, we need to come together as a community of advocates to ensure that gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment are central to the new framework.

There have been many affirmations of the centrality of gender equality and women’s empowerment to sustainable development. The Rio+20 outcome document, the report of the High-level Panel of Eminent Persons, the UNDG report “A Million Voices”, among others, have all emphasized the importance of a strong focus on gender equality.

We are encouraged by these affirmations. But as the discussion moves into the intergovernmental arena, we need these many voices of support to be heard loud and clear by governments around the world. UN Women has been, and will continue to be, fully engaged in these processes.

Stand-alone gender equality goal
We are calling for a stand-alone gender equality goal and mainstreaming of gender perspectives in all other goals. The stand-alone goal needs to address the structural causes of discrimination and should tackle three core areas.

First, violence against women and girls must stop. Targets and indicators must address prevention, protection, prosecution and provision of services, but should also aim to change perceptions, attitudes and behaviours that condone and justify violence against women and girls.

Second, women and girls must have equal access to resources and opportunities. The skewed distribution of capabilities needs to be addressed with urgency to build women’s economic and social security. This must include efforts to promote decent work, reduce women’s time burdens, and provide access to health and education, energy, water and sanitation, as well as control over land and productive assets.

The third area we propose should encompass voice, leadership and participation. It should go beyond women’s participation in national parliaments to include participation in public institutions at local and regional levels. Promoting equal decision-making in households and women’s leadership in the private sector are equally important, as well as women’s opportunities to engage in collective action.

Our proposed gender equality goal is grounded in existing government commitments. The targets and indicators we propose are in line with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW, as well as the Beijing Platform for Action and of course the ICPD Programme of Action. We have also reflected recent gains, such as elements of the agreed conclusions of this year’s session of the Commission on the Status of Women.

SRHR and the gender equality goal
Ensuring sexual and reproductive health and realizing reproductive rights is an integral part of these guiding documents and, therefore, of our proposed stand-alone goal. As we know, there is an inextricable link between sexual and reproductive health and rights and gender equality and women’s empowerment.

This is clearly stated in CEDAW, which devotes major attention to reproductive rights. The link between discrimination and women's reproductive role is recurrent in the Convention. It also affirms women's right to reproductive choice. This has been reaffirmed in ICPD as well as in Beijing which also states women’s right to “decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality […] free of coercion, discrimination and violence”.

There is no doubt that the post-2015 development framework must recognize that the lack of control that women and girls have over their own bodies and sexualities is an egregious violation of their rights. It also accounts for some of the biggest constraints to achieving their rights and capabilities in other areas.

Sexual and reproductive health is one of the most transformative elements for the achievement of sustainable development in its three dimensions – economic, social and environmental. It has been included as an element of the High-Level Panel report.

Indeed, family planning has been a game-changer in the history of women’s empowerment. Reproductive choices in the private sphere have enabled women to play a greater productive role in the public sphere.

Yet today, sexual and reproductive health still eludes too many women and girls. Every day, 800 women die from causes related to childbirth and pregnancy. More than 200 million women want—but lack access to—effective contraception. From Niger to Afghanistan, from Bangladesh to Tajikistan, girls continue to be forced to marry against their will – a clear violation of their reproductive rights and a devastating form of violence.

Accessibility, affordability, sustainability, quality, accountability, and availability of sexual and reproductive health throughout the life cycle without discrimination continue to be major issues. In addition, harmful traditional practices and the misinterpretation and misuse of traditions, customs and religion continue to hold back progress.

Lack of access to sexual and reproductive health contributes to gender inequalities, to discrimination, to violence and to disempowerment.

Many factors affect sexual and reproductive health outcomes—from women’s level of education to women’s participation in the labour market and in parliament. We need to address and promote them simultaneously.

Yes, we need to strengthen health systems. We need comprehensive sexuality education. We need gender-responsive and rights-based healthcare. But we also need to improve the legal and justice system, the education system, the political system, and the labour market and financial system to deliver for women and girls. This also entails re-thinking macroeconomic and social protection policies for women throughout the life cycle to take into account their reproductive role and the unequal and unpaid care burden disproportionately borne by women and girls.

Key processes ahead
To push this agenda forward, we need a systematic and coordinated effort from all of us. I see three key interlinked processes that we must influence and leverage.

First, intergovernmental processes to define the post-2015 development agenda are already underway. The Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals has been meeting and UN Women is part of the UN Task Team providing technical support to the Group. As the Group prepares to discuss gender equality in February, we must step up our engagement and advocacy for our stand-alone goal. We must also prepare for other intergovernmental processes that will unfold in the months to come.

Second, the next session of the Commission on the Status of Women in March 2014 will examine “challenges and achievements in the implementation of the MDGs for women and girls.” This will be a critical opportunity to look both backward and forward – at achievements and gaps of the MDGs and also at how these gaps can be addressed in a new framework.

Third, 2015 will not only mark the deadline for the achievement of the MDGs and the start of our new development agenda. It will also mark the 20-year anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action. Twenty years after its adoption, the normative force of the Platform for Action remains a highly relevant blueprint for the achievement of gender equality.

Beijing+20 will involve political, social, substantive and resource mobilization, as well as generation of a new momentum and commitment from the national and regional to the global level. 

Comprehensive national-level reviews will feed into regional reviews in 2014. The process will culminate in March 2015, when the Commission on the Status of Women will undertake its review and appraisal of the implementation of the Platform. This review will examine current challenges that affect implementation and address opportunities for strengthening gender equality and the empowerment of women in the post-2015 development agenda.

UN Women will be playing a key role in coordinating Beijing+20 and in mobilizing governments, civil society, the United Nations system, the private sector, and other stakeholders. We intend to give strong visibility to Beijing+20 through a dynamic, forward-looking and engaging process.

We will put gender equality and women’s empowerment at the top of the global agenda. Starting at CSW in 2014, we will focus every month on a specific critical area of concern of the Platform. We will bring together governments, civil society and other partners to recapture the “spirit of Beijing”.

The interlinked processes of Beijing+20 and the elaboration of the post-2015 development agenda provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to position gender equality and women’s empowerment both as an important end in itself and as essential for the achievement of sustainable development. The alignment between these two processes is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.

Role of civil society
As civil society, you play an essential role in participating and influencing these processes. Civil society and women's groups have made important recommendations towards the articulation of a new development framework. They echo calls for a set of goals that address all dimensions of sustainable development while prioritizing gender equality and human rights.

Civil society is arguing for a rebalancing of power relations; for the fulfilment of human rights; for overcoming exclusion; for ensuring equitable distribution and safe use of natural resources; and establishing participatory governance, accountability and transparency. The important issue going forward will be to create opportunities and spaces through which civil society will be able to advocate, lobby and influence the negotiations in support of their aspirations. You will need to do this with your governments and networks. And of course, UN Women will work with you to create these spaces of dialogue, discussion and influence-building.

We will be engaging through a number of mechanisms, including our Civil Society Advisory Groups at country, regional and global levels. We are already working with the Women’s Major Group and with other networks and forums to create spaces of discussions and of productive dialogue.

My friends,

Today, I would like to pay tribute to all of you – leaders, activists, advocates, practitioners – for your unwavering commitment to this agenda. And I would like to call on you to continue to pursue our joint path towards the achievement of gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment.

Let us be bold as we go forward together.

Let us envision a world where peace and human rights are the norm for women and girls, not the exception.

Let us envision a world where every woman and every girl has equal rights and opportunities.

Let us envision a world where women and girls all have access to sexual and reproductive health.

Let us envision a world where reproductive rights are protected, realized and guaranteed – and where women and girls have the means and autonomy to fully exercise those rights without fear of coercion, violence or harm.

This is the world we want for women and girls. This is the world we want for all.

Thank you.