From stigmas around menstruation, to the risk of unintended pregnancy, criminalisation of abortions, lack of maternal healthcare, misinformation and denial of reproductive autonomy, women and girls face a stark reality when it comes to their sexual and reproductive health rights. Sexual violence increases their vulnerability, and when certain events occur, these issues are intensified.

Beyond the impacts on women’s and girls’ immediate health and wellbeing, there are ripple effects that contribute to and deepen gender inequalities and discrimination.

What needs to change? Scroll down to learn more, and see how you can make a difference.

  Recognising the crisis  

  Recognising  
  the crisis  

No two crises are alike – they can range broadly from armed conflict to natural disasters, economic or social upheaval, and global pandemics. However, one commonality is that they often disproportionately affect the health, wellbeing and safety of women and girls. The impacts of efforts to resolve crises are also not distributed equally, and sometimes they can even deepen disparities and amplify harm to women and girls.
A radical shift is needed in how governments classify and respond to crises. The approach needs to be intersectional, gender responsive, and acknowledge the long-term impacts of denying women and girls full enjoyment of their sexual and reproductive health rights.
Gender inequality is a crisis in and of itself – one that has been normalised for many women and girls by centuries of patriarchy, colonisation and systemic racism, and deepened by a lack of legal protections.
Change starts with recognising gender inequality, its root causes like discrimination, and its symptoms like violence, as a crisis.
First, let’s take a look at some of the issues standing in the way of progress:
Discriminatory laws,
policies,
and practices
Failure to prioritise
women's sexual and
reproductive health
Little to no investment
in sexual and
reproductive
healthcare
No accountability for
violating women’s and
girls’ rights
No support for
womens human
rights defenders
Exclusion from
decision-making
Lack of engagement
and accountability
from men
Opposition through
misuse of ideology
and religion
Additional challenges
in times of crisis
Discriminatory laws,
policies,
and practices
Failure to prioritise
women's sexual and
reproductive health
Little to no investment
in sexual and
reproductive
healthcare
No accountability for
violating women’s and
girls’ rights
No support for
womens human
rights defenders
Exclusion from
decision-making
Lack of engagement
and accountability
from men
Opposition through
misuse of ideology
and religion
Additional challenges
in times of crisis

  Layers of complexity  

  Layers of  
  complexity  

While crises negatively affect women’s and girls’ access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, certain groups of women and girls face additional barriers.
Pre-existing inequalities – such as discrimination based on age, race, socio-economic status and ethnicity – can amplify the risks and challenges faced by some women and girls. Therefore, it’s important to view challenges to sexual and reproductive health rights through an intersectional lens.
If she is a girl or
adolescent
If she lives in
a rural area
If she has
a disability
If she is a refugee,
migrant or displaced
person
If she is from a
historically oppressed
and marginalised
group
If she is a girl or
adolescent
If she lives in
a rural area
If she has
a disability
If she is a refugee,
migrant or displaced
person
If she is from a
historically oppressed
and marginalised
group

  What needs to change  

  What needs  
  to change  

Crisis events can’t always be prevented, but their devastating effects on women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health rights can be prevented if steps are taken to mitigate harm.
Accomplishing this will require targeted action, though. What do governments, with participation from individuals and communities, need to do to adequately respect, protect and fulfil these basic rights?
  • Recognise women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health rights as essential and fully integrate them in crisis plans.
  • Ensure timely access to life-saving medicines and interventions.  
  • Ensure the safety and decent working conditions of healthcare workers in local communities at all times, while promoting community-based care and support.
  • Increase public funding for community-based organisations that focus on women’s and girl’s sexual and reproductive health rights and services.
  • Expand the availability of sexual and reproductive health services through telemedicine and mobile clinics to reach diverse populations.
  • Invest more in physical infrastructure including water and sanitation, public transportation and telecommunications, and in health systems.
  • Leverage existing institutional arrangements, networks and facilities to ensure the distribution of sexual and reproductive health commodities and information in local communities.
  • Make the provision of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health goods and services a core component of humanitarian aid programs. 
  • Meet the threshold of 0.7% GNP for international aid and cooperation without harmful restrictions on sexual and reproductive health rights. Make the provision of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health goods and services a core component of humanitarian aid programs.
  • Some countries have formally recognised sexual and reproductive health rights in their national constitutions, while others have recognised them as essential through national courts.
  • Ensure access to a full range of contraceptive information and services.
  • Decriminalise abortion, expand access to safe abortion services, and remove legal barriers to abortion in situations of crisis. 
  • Ensure timely access to maternal health services and emergency obstetric care.
  • Conduct a national audit to assess the sexual and reproductive health needs of women and girls, including neglected issues linked to violence and period poverty among others.
  • Make women’s and girls’ autonomy, privacy and informed consent central to all sexual and reproductive health laws and policies.  
  • Address the over-medicalisation and paternalistic approach to women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health services and reorient them around safeguarding women’s bodily integrity, autonomy and agency.
  • Ensure access to respectful and non-coercive sexual and reproductive health services for all women and girls and take additional steps to build trust with communities that have been historically marginalised
  • Adopt an intercultural and participatory approach to sexual and reproductive health to ensure that indigenous and ethnic minority women and girls are actively involved in shaping and implementing the health programs offered to them. 
  • Develop policies and commit additional resources to address multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.
  • Eliminate discriminatory stereotypes of women and girls and the stigma and taboos associated with sexual and reproductive health in law, policy and practice.
  • Feminist and women’s rights organisations working at the community level are at the forefront of ensuring women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health rights. Many are directly involved in the provision of sexual and reproductive health services and information and advocating against discriminatory laws and practices.
  • Adopt and enforce clear and coherent legal and policy frameworks to guide the provision of services in accordance with human rights obligations.
  • Compile data disaggregated by sex, gender, race, ethnicity and other grounds to determine the sexual and reproductive health rights status and needs of different populations of women.
  • Legally recognise and implement a broad set of reparations for violations of sexual and reproductive health rights.
  • Take effective measures to end violence and harassment against human rights defenders advocating for sexual and reproductive health rights.
  • Take steps to ensure that health service providers undertake their professional duties in accordance with human rights and comply with their ethical obligations.
  • Some places have implemented a “circle of accountability”, which brings together local communities, governments and other actors in a community-led monitoring effort to ensure accountability for sexual and reproductive health rights.
  • Increase women’s and young girls’ representation and effective participation in decision-making processes at all levels;
  • Systematically engage diverse women’s and girls’ rights and feminist organisations in the development, implementation, monitoring, evaluation and constant improvement of law, policy and practice relating to sexual and reproductive health;
  • Build participatory processes that are empowering, inclusive, accessible and non-discriminatory, with special attention to women and girls disproportionately affected by crisis. 
  • Integrate a gender, age, disability and inter-cultural perspective in all policies and practices, and promote women and youth leadership.
  • Promote male engagement and accountability to address pervasive sexism, misogyny, violence, toxic masculinity, and to promote women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health rights.
  • Some male parliamentarians and activists have begun promoting positive messages on how men and boys can be active participants in ending toxic masculinity, and encouraging positive behaviours among men in times of crisis, as done during the COVID-19 related lockdowns.
  • Actively push back against conservative religious and racialised political ideologies that undermine gender equality.
  • Oppose misinformation and religious positions that subvert women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health rights.
  • Ensure that international aid and assistance, including humanitarian assistance, is provided in accordance with human rights standards. 
  • Support the UN system in countering religious ideologies opposing women’s and girl’s sexual and reproductive health rights.     
  • Refrain from using political and financial influence with States and non-state actors to undermine and roll back women’s and girls’ rights.
  • Some governments have pushed back against conservative and anti-women’s rights agendas. For example, 58 governments issued a joint statement condemning efforts to undermine women’s and girls’ human rights, and identifying the importance of sexual and reproductive health rights to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

  The Ripple Effect  

When women and girls are able to fully enjoy their sexual and reproductive health rights, they will make progress in other fields and societies will benefit from their strength and contributions.
We must move beyond talking about achieving gender equality to eliminating its root causes.
To achieve this, we need to address the existing gaps and threats to women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and restrictions on their autonomy. The status quo is unacceptable.
The benefits of actively ensuring women’s and girls’ human rights are felt beyond them as individuals – they ripple through all tiers of society and across generations. If we make this change, big things can happen — what’s your role in all of this?

  Here’s how you can help  

All actions – big or small – create change. Here are three things you can do today to be part of the change.

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