As International Women’s Day approaches, I have been reflecting on how much I have taken my sexual and reproductive rights for granted. Though family planning was a challenge to access as an adolescent it was available, and as an adult it has always been easy to obtain. When I started a family it was my choice to do so. I received high quality pre-natal care, and when my child decided to enter the world earlier than anticipated, the health care system took good care of us both. I know that I have the right to make decisions about my body and I have always been able to freely exercise those rights.
As Amnesty International Canada’s campaigner on women’s rights it is my wish that my experience be shared by all women but sadly it is not. In Canada, many women and girls continue to face barriers in fully exercising their sexual and reproductive rights. Sexuality education and family planning may be available, but if you are a new immigrant, Aboriginal, youth, LGBT, rural dweller, have a disability, or live in poverty or on the street, these services may be difficult to access or not designed to meet your needs. A recent report by Statistics Canada noted that the rate of sexual assaults is not decreasing, and that the most marginalized women in Canadian society, those who are least likely to have access to services to help them claim their sexual and reproductive rights, are most likely to become victims of sexual violence.
The challenges that women and girls outside Canada face are staggering. For example, Latifah, a 14-year-old girl from Indonesia, was accused of adultery by the local police when she went to report she had been raped. Louisa, a young woman from Burkina Faso, was verbally abused and slapped during childbirth at a local hospital. Marta, a 30-year-old domestic worker from Indonesia, was refused contraceptives at a Jakarta health centre because she hasn’t had children yet. And Elena, a 10-year-old girl raped by a priest in Nicaragua, was pressured not to file a complaint and to keep quiet about the abuse, before her rapist was finally prosecuted and sentenced to 30 years in prison. These women’s names have been changed but their stories show the consequences of the entrenched discrimination faced by millions of women and girls around the world simply because of their gender.
Being able to make our own decisions about our bodies and our lives is a basic human right, and one that we often take for granted in Canada. But for millions of women, it’s a right that is violated daily.
On this International Women’s Day I invite you to join Amnesty International’s campaign to protect the sexual and reproductive rights of all women and girls. Join us in calling on world leaders to protect our right to make our own decisions about our bodies and our lives.
Nearly 20 years ago at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt, 179 countries reaffirmed the human rights of women and girls to make choices about sexuality, pregnancy, and motherhood, and pledged to put women’s empowerment at the centre of policies on population and development. Despite their commitments many of the world’s 1.8 billion young people still struggle to access information, sexuality education, and sexual and reproductive health services they need. Too many young women and girls face violence, coercion, and discrimination. Many are unable to access contraception without consent from their husband or family, forced into marriage, or denied access to safe and legal abortion. Boys and girls are taught to think and behave in ways that perpetuate these violations of their human rights. Some governments and groups are even questioning the principle that women have the same rights as men.
In 2013 and 2014, world leaders will meet to review the International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action. They will discuss their progress on sexual and reproductive health and rights, and the future they hope to create. During this process, we will need to combat an increasingly well-funded and organized attack on sexual and reproductive rights and gender equality from various entities, which, if successful, would mean that justice would not be served for Elena in Nicaragua and countless other women and girls whose rights continue to be violated.
World leaders need to hear our voices now. They need to know that we are holding them accountable to the commitments they made almost 20 years ago. They need to know that our rights will not be undermined. And they need to know that the words they agree to on paper need to be translated into concrete action that protects all women and girls.
Take action on March 8th to help protect our rights to make decisions about our bodies and our lives!
- Participate in International Women’s Day celebrations being organized across Canada.
- Sign our My Body, My Rights petition online, calling on world leaders to protect our sexual and reproductive rights. Promote the petition via Facebook and Twitter. Print copies of the petition and collect signatures at International Women’s Day events.
- Take a photo of yourself holding a sign saying “My Body, My Rights!” and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll upload it to the campaign’s Flickr page.
- Knit or crochet a uterus and send it to your Member of Parliament, with a message encouraging the Canadian government to protect our sexual and reproductive rights.
- Download our Maternal Health and Sexual and Reproductive Rights Toolkit and use it during awareness-raising activities.
- Write a letter on behalf of Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman, an activist from Egypt.
Jacqueline Hansen is the Major Campaigns and Women’s Rights Campaigner at Amnesty International Canada (English).