Press Release

IACHR Urges All States to Adopt Comprehensive, Immediate Measures to Respect and Protect Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Rights

October 23, 2017

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Washington, D.C.—The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) calls on all States to adopt immediate measures to ensure that women can fully exercise all sexual and reproductive rights. These include rights related to non-discrimination, to life, to personal integrity, to health, to dignity, and to access to information, among others. Along these lines, States have a fundamental obligation to ensure timely and adequate access to health services that only women, female adolescents, and girls need because of their sex/gender and reproductive function, free from all forms of discrimination and violence, in accordance with existing international commitments on gender equality.

Women, girls, and adolescents in the region continue to face serious challenges in terms of respect and protection of their fundamental rights, in a context deeply marked by violence and discrimination against them. In the case of their sexual and reproductive rights, these obstacles include denial of access to goods and services that only women require; health-care access that is subject to third-party authorization; poor-quality and even clandestine reproductive health services; and performance of procedures without proper informed consent. Information received by the Commission indicates that some groups of women—especially women in a state of poverty, those living in rural areas, indigenous or Afro-descendant women, and girls and adolescents—are among those who most often experience violations of their rights to access sexual and reproductive health services in equal conditions and free from all forms of discrimination.

In terms of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), sexual and reproductive rights form part of the human right to integral health, understood as a general state of physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of diseases or infirmities. The right to sexual health deals with all aspects of the reproductive system as well as the ability to enjoy a satisfying and safe sex life and to have the freedom to decide whether to procreate or not, when to do it and how often. In order to maintain their sexual and reproductive health, women and girls need access to truthful information and a contraceptive method of their choice that is safe, effective, affordable and acceptable. They also should be informed and empowered to protect themselves from sexual transmission.

“It is important to draw attention to the difficulties women, girls, and adolescents continue to face to obtain access to the various sexual and reproductive health services,” said Commissioner Margarette May Macaulay, IACHR Rapporteur on the Rights of Women. “These obstacles are even more pronounced for women who are at risk because of various factors such as race, ethnicity, age, and economic position. For example, at the IACHR we have obtained consistent information pointing to the close relationship between poverty, unsafe abortions, and high maternal mortality rates. Inequality, racism, discrimination, and violence are some of the structural factors that have a particular negative impact on women and preclude the effective enjoyment of their fundamental rights, such as the right to health,” she added.

Sexual violence is widespread throughout the region and has an irreparable impact on women, girls, and adolescents. As particular cases being processed by the IACHR have shown, these forms of violence, its magnitude and the general situation of impunity, negatively affect their reproductive health and frequently result in unwanted and high-risk pregnancies, illegal and unsafe abortions, and an increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases. It is essential for the States to design and comply with proper health protocols to address the needs of women, girls, and adolescents who are victims of sexual violence and to make available the legal and safe interruption of pregnancies resulting from sexual violence, to stop the development of pregnancies that are unwanted and that put women’s lives in danger.

The effective exercise of the rights of women, girls, and adolescents also requires ensuring access to information and to the necessary and integral education so that they can freely make decisions about the number and spacing of their children and aspects related to family planning, particularly in the case off girls and adolescents. This is essential to advance women’s reproductive autonomy and prevent unwanted pregnancies.

“We know that in the case of pregnancies, family and social pressures often push adolescent girls into marriages or early unions, with an impact on their opportunities for personal, educational, and professional development. For example, pregnant girls and teens still face discrimination in schools where they are not allowed to attend classes while pregnant. Sexual and reproductive health education is essential to prevent early and unwanted pregnancies and to empower girls and teens to make plans for their lives,” said the Rapporteur on the Rights of Children and Adolescents, Commissioner Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño.

The Commission also underscores that laws criminalizing abortion in all circumstances have a negative impact on women’s dignity and their rights to life, to personal integrity, and to health, as well as on their general right to live free from violence and discrimination. The absolute criminalization of abortion, including in cases where the woman’s life is at risk and when the pregnancy results from a rape or incest, imposes a disproportionate burden on the exercise of women’s rights and creates a context that facilitates unsafe abortions and high rates of maternal mortality.

“The interruption of a pregnancy is a difficult decision for any woman,” said Soledad García Muñoz, the IACHR Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural, and Environmental Rights. “Victims of sexual violence or incest are in a particularly vulnerable situation by definition, even more so if they are girls or adolescents. Therefore, women, girls, and adolescents should be guaranteed the possibility of making this decision in a way that is timely and informed, in a legal and safe context, to protect their health, their physical integrity, and even their life. Denying access by women and girls to legal and safe abortion services or post-abortion care can cause prolonged and excessive physical and psychological suffering to many women, especially in cases involving risks to their health, unviability of the fetus, or pregnancies resulting from incest or rape. Without being able to effectively exercise their sexual and reproductive rights, women cannot realize their right to live free from violence and discrimination.”

The States in the region have the obligation to conduct a detailed review of all their laws, regulations, practices, and public policies whose wording or implementation in practice could have discriminatory repercussions on women’s access to all reproductive health services. The States also have the duty to eliminate all de jure and de facto obstacles that prevent women from having access to the maternal health services they may require. These measures must take into account the special situation of risk, lack of protection, and vulnerability of girls and adolescents, as well as of women who are particularly excluded.

The IACHR also urges the States in the region that still lack an adequate regulatory framework to adopt legislation designed to ensure that women can effectively exercise their sexual and reproductive rights, with the understanding that denying the voluntary interruption of pregnancy in certain circumstances does constitute a violation of the fundamental rights of women, girls, and adolescents.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 165/17