Women’s sexual and reproductive rights, their autonomy and ability to make choices about their bodies and sexual relationships are a source of conflict around the globe. Forces of patriarchy and sexism routinely exert control over women’s sexuality in an effort to subjugate women and present a normalized fundamentalist view of sexuality and women’s role in society. Justifications based on religion, tradition, culture, and public morality have served as effective tools to attack women, their bodies and their human rights. Given this scenario, the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) has created new and strategic research to address the rise of religious fundamentalisms and its negative effects on women’s rights, their sexual rights and their reproductive rights and choices.
The attacks on women’s sexual and reproductive rights are evident at all levels: the international, regional, national and local. Fundamentalist forces are increasingly using international platforms to make declarations and interpret treaties with a biased and restrictive view of rights, with the aim of establishing the superiority of certain rights like freedom of religion over any others recognized by international human rights instruments. These include interpreting concepts like family, sexuality, and women’s role in society, all through an ultra-conservative lens, and forward a fundamentalist social perspective.
In October 2011, Anand Grover, the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, presented before the UN General Assembly a groundbreaking report (A/66/254). Grover made clear and courageous statements condemning the negative impacts that criminal laws and other legal restrictions have over women’s reproductive freedoms, decisionmaking processes, and autonomy. This spurred outraged reactions from organizations such as Family Watch International which accused the rapporteur of overstepping his mandate, ignoring parental rights, and “subvert[ing] a clearly guaranteed right of religion in favour of an imaginary right to abortion”.
Also, early this year (Feb. 2012), the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee discussed a draft report entitled “The Preliminary Study on promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms through a better understanding of traditional values of humankind” (A/HRC/AC/8/4) in which the UN uses concepts such as religion, values, tradition and the role of the family in the international human rights system.
For many activists this has raised questions about the pressures that ultra-conservative and fundamentalist agendas have put on a structure such as the UN and the international human rights system, which is meant to promote and protect the rights of all people.
Another important international venue, the 56th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), ended in a political deadlock and stalemate between women’s rights advocates and ultra-conservative forces earlier this year. Culture and tradition were invoked to stall progress on critical women’s rights issues. Ultra-conservative States and nongovernmental groups again pushed for the recognition of “parental rights” and lobbied for the exclusion of the right to comprehensive sexuality education, the right to abortion services, and contraception as part of comprehensive reproductive health. In this way, fundamentalist forces are promoting the notion that sexual and reproductive rights should not be recognized as human rights.
At a local and national level, in countries in Latin America and in the United States for example, fundamentalist strategies consist of active lobbying to reform laws and policies with the objective of restricting access to abortion services, contraception or comprehensive sexual education. Fundamentalist forces have tried to push forward their anti-abortion agendas through the use of “personhood clauses” and “the protection of life from conception”, mainly, by bringing forward emblematic cases in front of the judiciary arguing the right to life of the fetus. Other tactics include the presentation of bills before congress, the recognition of conscientious objection to justify hospitals or individual physicians from refusing to provide abortion services, and insisting on previous judicial authorizations to access a legal abortion. These tactics are accompanied and reinforced by broader social pressures imposed through selective fundamentalist interpretations of religion and the burden of social stigma and shame forced on women who decide to interrupt pregnancy.
Even when rights are legally granted to women, religious fundamentalisms mobilize forces to obstruct public policies that would allow for effective implementation of these rights. For example, in a recent victory for Argentina, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion on the grounds of rape was accessible to all women without exception. This ruling included removing the requirement of prior judicial authorization for a legal abortion and called on the government to implement protocols for the provision of safe abortion. However, many provinces and hospitals have declared that they have no intention of implementing this ruling and that such protocols will not be put into place because it represents a direct violation to their religious beliefs.
Choices over areas such as sexuality and reproduction are basic human rights and must be promoted and guarded at all levels. Governments have the responsibility to be accountable to their citizens and take actions which protect reproductive and sexual rights, including access to safe abortion services, contraception and maternal health care. Culture, religion, tradition or any personal belief cannot be used to undermine the rights of women or be promoted as superior to the human rights recognized by international instruments or national constitutions. As activists, we need to hold States and international human rights bodies accountable for the promotion, protection and fulfillment of women’s human rights and fundamental freedoms and to reject attempts to invoke traditional values or morals that infringe on these rights.