Women, Reproductive Health, and Sustainable Development
By Patricia Suarez
“Rich women abort, poor women die.” Dr. Patricia Da Silva, the International Advocacy Officer from International Planned Parenthood, summed up the importance of realizing that women’s rights includes their right to reproductive health. The panel concentrated on the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3 on Health and Well Being, and on SDG 5 on gender equality, highlighting the interconnectedness of sustainable development - and improvement in one target not only leads to further improvement in that specific goal, but also adds to progress in other goals.
It is poor women, already vulnerable due to their economic status and gender, who are most affected by restrictions to access to reproductive health, and the legal status of abortion. If these poor women were to choose to have an abortion, and if an abortion is illegal in that country, then they are more likely to choose to undergo an unsafe operation. By doing so, there are multiple complications that may arise, be it being unable to have children again, or even death itself. Meanwhile, rich women are more likely to find ways to have their abortions safely - they can go abroad, or can pay a trained doctor to conduct the abortion in safe conditions. In this way, the cycle of poverty is perpetuated as poor women are the most affected by the legal status of abortion.
However, as the panel emphasized, this not only extends to the legal status of abortion. A significant percentage of women are still unable to have access to contraception, and violence against women remains rampant on the global level with one in ten women having experienced sexual violence. Of these, it is more likely that it was at the hands of their family or their intimate partners. When they seek justice, they are shut down, and in some parts of the world, forced to marry the violator. Thus, patriarchal laws continue to hinder women from the justice they deserve.
As Alana Galati elaborated on how hundreds of millions of women still lack sexual and reproductive services, and most of these women are in developing regions. As she puts it: “Poor country, poor community, greater need for contraception.” This is because they are already the most vulnerable, and greater numbers of newborns add additional stress to already finite resources in these communities. In relation to this, pregnancy related care is also the lowest in the least developed regions of the world as women do not receive essential maternal and newborn health care. It is estimated that 800 women die daily due to not being able to receive essential maternal health care.
A further complication to this lack of maternal health care is that child marriage still remains widespread despite the prohibitions, with an estimated 39,000 child marriages happening every day according to UNICEF. As these young women are married before they are physically mature enough to handle a pregnancy, complications in pregnancy and childbirth is the second leading cause of death of young girls in developing countries. In all these instances, improving a girls’ status in society, as equal to boys, and giving them access to essential information including reproductive health, can these deaths thus be avoided.
On the issue of reproductive health, Hayley Gleeson, a spokesperson from a youth oriented advocacy group, spoke about the need to ensure that young people also have access to information about their reproductive rights and be adequately educated on these rights. Young people under 25 are essential to sustainable development as there are about 1.8 billion people between the ages of 10 and 25 - the largest population in the world. All throughout the world, clinical services are still inaccessible to this age group - with 72 countries requiring parental consent for even the most basic clinical service offered: reproductive health education. This perpetuates the inequality of already vulnerable populations: the poor who live in stifling patriarchal societies are less able to access these services, and only perpetuates the crushing cycle of poverty.
Women who can choose when they can have children, or how many children they have, then this means women can then be more active in society. Thus they are also more likely to stay in school, to have jobs, to be economically independent. These women are more likely to know their rights and fight for these rights. It is thus important that women have access to sexual education, and that they should be free from being forced to marry. When the Member-States of the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, they inherently also agreed that equality is crucial. When policies and laws does not include half of the society, sustainable development will not be attained.