Not up for negotiation

GlenysKinnock4x3.jpgGlenys Kinnock on the importance of womens' rights

This week’s Family Planning Summit in London, hosted by the Gates Foundation and DfID was welcome. But it is important to emphasise that the central focus on the increase of contraceptive supplies must come with a clear understanding that social and economic development, improved education, and with the political and legal rights of women fully integrated into the process.

It is also vital that national, regional and international commitments to human rights are adhered to by the governments of developing countries when implementing family planning programmes. That means obliging them to deal with, and remove, those barriers which currently deny reproductive health, information and services to adolescents.

When women have access to sexual and reproductive rights, deaths in pregnancy and childbirth are lowered, as are the numbers of abortions and the rates of teenage pregnancies. Provision of family planning services should also include midwife services and emergency obstetric care.

On contraception, it is essential that an opportunity is given to talk about access to education and the prevention of child marriage, when appropriate. Distribution of contraceptives should be used as an opportunity to raise wide and broader issues directly concerning the empowerment of women and girls.

Women need to be given the ability and the confidence to make informed decisions. That means understanding that when decisions on contraception are described as “voluntary”, it is unlikely this will happen unless the necessary information is available. And it means properly taking into account the religious and cultural barriers which impose that overt discrimination standing in the way of their freedom to choose. There is abundant evidence that the repression many women face makes it difficult for them to actually defend their rights, or gain the self-esteem and authority which guarantees they have control over their own choices.

We know now that the Rio + 20 conference took us backwards on sexual and reproductive rights.

Countries such as Russia, Egypt, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Syria and Chile spoke out against the one and only reference to reproductive rights in the document; and when the Vatican intervened, the dye was cast and the section removed. To quote Mary Robinson “What do celibate men know about the decisions taken by poor women?”

Others, including the US led by Hilary Clinton, did argue for a strong position on rights as an essential to achieve progress on sustainable development, gender equality and women’s empowerment. It is unclear however, what the UK did or said as a member of the EU delegation, but we do know that pressure from certain member states ensured the EU stayed silent.

At the end of the conference, Gro Harlem Bruntland said: “We can no longer afford this outrageous oversight driven by old fashioned tradition, discrimination and pure ignorance. Now is the time to stop all discrimination against women and girls.”

Going forward, I trust this warning will be heeded. It could be that because the strong language on reproductive rights was left out of the Rio text, more people than ever will now understand the need to stand up for those rights. I hope therefore that DfID and the Gates Foundation will take on the role of building stronger alliances across the world and that it is understood that women’s rights are not up for negotiation.

Baroness Glenys Kinnock is Labour’s Shadow Minister for International Development in the Lords

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