Åsa Regnér


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    EU networking in sexual reproductive health and rights

    Åsa Regnér, Secretary General RFSU, Sweden

    Working with gender equality issues and SRHR at the international level is a constant battle, not only to advance the agenda but also to defend progress that has already been made. The International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994 was a breakthrough. This was the first time an international document, agreed within the UN, pointed to unsafe abortions as a major contributor to maternal mortality. The ICPD affirmed that regardless of national legislation, women must have access to quality services for the management of complications arising from abortion. Access to post abortion care  is an issue that is still being debated at the UN.

    In 1995 the Forth Conference on Women in Beijing sparked a renewed global commitment to the empowerment of women and to gender equality. This time countries around the world agreed to ìconsider reviewing laws which punish women for having illegal abortionsî.  When the same language was put forward by the US this year at the UN Commission for Population and Development -  some countries did not agree and therefore it couldnít be accepted.

    In the European Union we have also seen a development during the last five or six years which points to an increasingly worrying political situation when it comes to SRHR. In 2004, when the ICPD Plan of Action celebrated its 10 anniversary, the EU issued strong and rights based Council Conclusion on the theme. Last year, at ICPDís 15th anniversary, nor the Czech or Swedish presidency dared suggesting the subsequent council conclusions on the agenda in fear of political set-back or conflict.

    Within the EU the  polarization  between on the one side  countries like Sweden, which  prioritizes  these

    issues, the Netherlands and Denmark and on the other side Poland, Ireland and Malta has increased in the last decade. This inability to agree has lead to a split in EUís positions at the UN, resulting in member states negotiating as separate countries and not as the EU on issues on SRHRadmin. This is an obvious failure for the EU as an global actor.

    One reason for the development within EU and globally is an unfortunate mixture of religion and politics.

    Luckily, I think this last year there has been an awakening regarding the slow progress on reducing maternal mortality in the world. The UN Secretary General is particularly concerned about this and has therefore recently launched a Global Strategy and Joint Action Plan on women and childrenís health. In the strategy, the Secretary General points out life-saving interventions such as family planning services and making childbirth safe He underlines that in order to reach MDG 5 on maternal health women need to have access to comprehensive and integrated health services that include skilled care during childbirth at appropriate facilities, HIV prevention and also to safe abortion services (when abortion is not prohibited by law).

    I recently attended the Millenium Development Goal Summit in New York. During the negotiations on the Outcome document the EU was able to take a strong approach on human rights and defended and pushed for wording on for example human rights and gender equality. This resulted in a better document than was first anticipated. However, because of this political division the EU could not push for wordings on reproductive rights or even state the linkages between unsafe abortion and maternal health. Still, we know unsafe abortion is the third biggest reason for maternal deaths. As a result the document doesn´t even mention access to post-abortion care, something that I as mentioned was already agreed upon in Cairo 1994.

    The EU must do better. The EU, including the Commission and all member states, is the worldís largest donor of development aid. The EU is committed to reach the MDGs. This summer the Commission adopted a paper on a twelve point Action plan to reach the MDGs. One important point in the document is to focus on the MDGs most off-track, one of them being MDG5 on maternal health. Progressive and brave policies on issues on SRHR are therefore vital.

    One formal obstacle when advocating for better SRHR policies within the EU is that the EU has no mandate to legislate on SRHR issues like abortion, sexual or reproductive health or sexuality education. Those are political decisions that fall under the so called principle of subsidiary, which means that member states decides on their own.

    There are however some openings to include SRHR in EU politics:

    1. The most obvious being that all member states have committed to implement the ICPD Programme of Action and the Beijing Action Plan and the MDG. In June the Development Committee in EP adopted a report on implementation of MDG in which it clearly states that EU member states and the commission should support policies on safe abortion.

    2. There are also several important areas of EU-competence that touches upon issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights. Trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation is one example. Gender equality is another very important area. The EU also has some competence in the area of public health.

    Experiences show that it has been easier to talk about sexual and reproductive rights in the area of HIV and AIDS. Recently (June 2010) the European parliament adopted a resolution on a rights based approach to the EUís respons to HIV and AIDS. The EP calls on the Commission and Member States to ensure the promotion, protection and observance of the human rights, including the sexual and reproductive rights, of people living with HIV and AIDS and other key population. The High Representative / Vice-President, Catherine Ashton, made a very supportive statement in front of the Parliament, committing to fully implementing this resolution.

    3. EU claims to be a protector and promoter of human rights. EU:s inability to push for sexual and reproductive rights is not worthy an institution that is built on the fundament of human rights and democracy.

    Lately we have seen a positive development on a human rights perspective on maternal mortality. It was a major breakthrough in June 2009 when the Human Rights Council of the UN adopted a resolution  (resolution 11/8) stating that preventable maternal mortality and morbidity should be seen as a human rights issue. The human rights argument should be used towards the EU, now more than ever. The adoption of the Lisbon Treaty has strengthened the protection of human rights and hopefully also sexual and reproductive rights.  For example:

    The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (CFR-EU), 2000, can also be utilised to advance SRHR. Since December 2009, with the adoption of the EU Lisbon Treaty, member countries are bound to follow the Charter's provisions.

    Since the adoption of the Treaty the European Union, as an institution, is also in process to accede to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms Convention. The process of accession is expected to be finished in 2011.

    The Treaty also gives EU citizens'  a ìright of initiativeî. It means that a million citizens may sign a petition inviting the Commission to submit a proposal on any area of EU competence.  

    In addition the parliamentary assembly of Council of Europe ((PACE)  has adopted a resolution in 2009 on ICPD +15 in which they call on the members states review, update and compare members statesí national and international SRHR policies and strategies and, in the context of reducing maternal deaths, reduce the numbers of unsafe abortions. Already one year earlier the assembly adopted a resolution on "Access to safe and legal abortion in Europe" in which they invite member states to guarantee womenís effective exercise of their right of access to a safe and legal abortion and decriminalize abortion.

    4. The EUs role as international actor, for instance within the UN and through it´s development aid, which I described before.

    There is much need for cooperation between actors who are determined to fight for a woman´s right to decide over her body, to reduce maternal mortality rates, to safeguard access to safe and legal abortions Global politics is not looking too good in this field right now, but some governments are determined to work in a progressive way. I believe it´s important that civil society, human right´s advocates, medical experts and politicians from many countries work strategically together and I am happy to be able to speak about these injustices in front of such a knowledgeable audience. I am convinced, although it sometimes looks difficult, that joint efforts will change the world to the better for women.