Lancet Editorial :: The erosion of women’s sexual and reproductive rights

Human Rights, Violence, Conflict: Rape As Weapon Of War

Editor’s Note:
In last week’s edition of The Sentinel, we included the UN Security Council’s report on the adoption of a resolution “…Calling upon Belligerents Worldwide to Adopt Concrete Commitments on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict” [repeated below]. In the general media, there was strong criticism of a softening of the language of the resolution which we did not present. In this week’s The Lancet, the lead editorial provides an analysis and call to action included below.


The Lancet
May 04, 2019 Volume 393Number 10183p1773-1910
The erosion of women’s sexual and reproductive rights
The Lancet
The use of rape as a weapon of war is an unconscionable yet common phenomenon. An annual report from the UN Secretary General last month documents active use of sexual violence in 37 current conflicts, including in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria. Sexual violence in conflict, which is mostly perpetrated against women and girls, is horrific and devastating to individuals, but also intended to destroy whole communities. Over history, it has usually been done with impunity and with little attention by the international community. Ten years after the UN categorised rape as a weapon of war, acknowledging that it had become “more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict”, sexual violence in war remains a deep scar on the moral prebity of the international community.

So the news last week that a UN Security Council resolution had been adopted to reaffirm member states’ commitment to combating sexual violence is to be welcomed. Some important features of the 2019 resolution could be seen as gains: a focus on victim-centred approaches; the importance of civil society in pursuing justice; mention of boys and men as victims of sexual violence in conflict; recognition of children born of rape; and the valuable role of UN fact-finding missions. Sadly, the adopted resolution was stripped of its inclusion of formal monitoring and reporting of atrocities, which is an accountability mechanism long called for and needed. The bigger news—that the USA threatened to veto the resolution if it included language on sexual and reproductive health—is extremely alarming.

According to The Guardian, the USA required the removal of references in the resolution to sexual and reproductive health as this could imply it supports abortion. Critics say the move was designed to demonstrate President Trump’s conservative credentials and rouse voters for his re-election. But America playing (and winning) domestic politics in the multilateral space has much graver implications: it is putting women’s lives and health at risk. It also disregards the most fundamental of rights that a woman has over her own body. “It is intolerable and incomprehensible”, France’s Ambassador to the UN François Dellatre is quoted as stating, “that the Security Council is incapable of acknowledging that women and girls who suffered from sexual violence in conflict—and who obviously didn’t choose to become pregnant—should have the right to terminate their pregnancy.”

America’s hard-line stance against abortion rights for women victims of sexual violence in conflict is emblematic of a disturbing trend. The growing spread of conservative views on sexual and reproductive health pose a considerable threat to rights that had been hard-and rights fought and won more than a quarter of a century ago. 2019 marks 25 years since the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, at which the link between women’s empowerment and sustainable development was established. Women’s reproductive rights were affirmed by the international community for the first time. During the Nairobi Summit in November, 2019, hosted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to discuss progress on ICPD+25, the many achievements for women’s sexual and reproductive rights will and should be celebrated. But it is the erosion of those rights that now needs the full attention and convening power of the international community of advocates for women and girls.

UNFPA’s own data lend support to the cause for alarm. The latest version of their flagship publication, State of the World’s Population 2019, reported last month that vast numbers of women still lack decision-making power over their own bodies. Women for the first time were surveyed about their ability to make decisions about sexual intercourse with their partner, contraceptive use, and health care. Just 57% of women around the world reported being able to make their own choices in these areas. Autonomy over one’s own body is not just a cornerstone of reproductive rights. The right to choose whether, when, how often, and with whom to get pregnant is foundational to women’s wellbeing, education, status, and participation in society, and it in turn is crucial to the health of families and communities.

A massive outcry about last week’s UN Security Council resolution debacle is certainly warranted. But a better outcome would be for advocates globally to redouble their efforts and form alliances. They must prepare and organise to produce a stronger, more visible, and unified approach against the conservatism that is slowly eroding women’s rights.


Security Council 8514th Meeting (AM)
Security Council Adopts Resolution Calling upon Belligerents Worldwide to Adopt Concrete Commitments on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict
Members Pass Resolution 2467 (2019) by 13 Votes in Favour, None against, as China, Russian Federation Abstain
The Security Council called today upon warring parties around the globe to implement concrete commitments to fight what many speakers described as the heinous, barbaric and all-too-often silent phenomenon of sexual violence during conflict…