Rights – not criminalization – for girls and women, says UN health expert

By Stephanie Schlitt, Amnesty International’s Researcher and Policy Advisor on Gender

Today, at the United Nations General Assembly, the UN’s expert on the right to health, Anand Grover, will present a ground-breaking report. The report exposes how states are putting women’s and girls’ lives and health at risk through criminal laws and other misguided legal restrictions that deny girls and women access to sexual and reproductive health information and services and the ability to make decisions about their sexual and reproductive lives.

The report concludes that restrictions on abortion and contraception, the criminalization of pregnant women’s conduct (such as making drug use when pregnant a criminal offence), as well as restrictions on access to information on sexual and reproductive health violate girls’ and women’s rights to sexual and reproductive health. This report supports earlier UN expert findings that such laws place states in breach of their international human rights obligations.

For almost eight years at Amnesty International I have worked to support research and campaigning on gender-related issues. I am in the middle of my first pregnancy just now. Being here at the UN to see this report being presented feels all the more poignant because of this. As I read the report, my thoughts turned to the girls and women all over the world whose experience of sexuality and reproduction is shaped by laws and policies that allow the state, and the people around them, to subject them to pressure, fear, intimidation, pain, suffering and punishment.

In Indonesia Amnesty International’s research has highlighted a number of legal provisions, including in the Criminal Code, which restrict access to sexual and reproductive rights, or have a chilling effect on the provision of sexual and reproductive health information and services. Some Indonesian activists expressed particular concerns about the new Pornography Law (No. 44/2008) which they said could prevent them from disseminating information on sex education free from the threat of criminalization. One activist told Amnesty International: “If people feel uncomfortable and think I am promoting sex, this can be a problem… it always depends on community leaders… if they are very fundamentalist then there is a high chance [we will be arrested].”

In 2008, draconian legal provisions came into force in Nicaragua which criminalize abortion in all circumstances. As one weary Nicaraguan doctor told an Amnesty International researcher: “Doctors’ hands are tied… we are anxious even about treating a miscarriage, for example.” The situation is so desperate that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights demanded that the Nicaraguan government provide medical treatment to “Amalia”, a young woman suffering advanced cancer. She had been denied the treatment she needed because the 2008 law criminalizes even unintentional harm to the foetus, a risk that her treatment for cancer entailed.

The UN expert’s recommendations echo calls made by international human rights bodies and public health experts. But most importantly, the report reflects the demands of girls and women and those active for the protection of their human rights. On 28 September, hundreds of Nicaraguans marched against the abortion ban. Two young girls held a banner saying “Motherhood: Only if I can and only if I am willing.” Amnesty International supports their demand. So does the Special Rapporteur in his report. Let’s hope more governments hear these voices, adhere to their international legal obligations and take the actions recommended in the report presented today!