During this year’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), I had the privilege of attending an event on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) promoted by EngenderHealth. The 2017 theme for the CSW was “Women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work”. It may seem as though the topic of sexual and reproductive health and rights does not fit into this theme, but in fact there is a strong link between economic empowerment and sexual and reproductive rights.

For women to truly be able to enjoy economic empowerment and equality with men in the workforce and elsewhere, they need to be given the information they need to make decisions about their bodies and reproductive choices. Unplanned pregnancies during adolescence, contracting an STI, HIV/AIDS, and having to deal with the complications of childbirth are all examples of situations that put women at a disadvantage to men economically and in the workforce. With the proper knowledge and access to services, women, starting at a young age, can be empowered to take charge of their bodies and lives.

Two main barriers stand in the way of the fulfilment of sexual and reproductive health rights for women worldwide:

1) Policies that restrict information and access to SRHR services

2) Lack of comprehensive sexual education for young people

A main topic of discussion throughout the event was the reinstatement of the global gag rule by American president Donald Trump. This is a prime example of the kind of policies instituted by governments which limit and restrict access for both women and men to essential information and services such as family planning, STI testing, HPV vaccinations, and pre- and post-natal care, just to name a few. Unfortunately, decisions that affect millions of people worldwide still rest on the hands of a few with the political power to do so, and that’s why it’s important for the civil society to keep their governments accountable, as well as to take action in the areas of society where they can have power, such as in education.

The saying that knowledge is power is especially true when it comes to the sexual and reproductive health and rights. However, despite the importance of sex education for young people, especially young women, in most parts of the world sex education is lacking in formal education. And this isn’t just a problem in the developing world: in the United States, for example, out of the country’s 50 states, only 24 plus the District of Columbia (DC) require sex education in schools. Something that was brought up by some in the audience and addressed by the panelists is the need to make sex education empowering for young people; it should speak their language, and take advantage of the technology they use, so that what they learn can actually help them make wise choices regarding sexual and reproductive health in their everyday lives.

One thing that is important to point out is that sexual and reproductive issues are intersectional: women’s race, educational level, and economic standing also play a role. For example, in the United States rates of teen pregnancy are higher among black and hispanic women than white. The birth rate per 1,000 females between the ages of 15 and 19 in 2014 for white women was of 17.3, while for black women it was 34.9, and 38 for hispanic. A comprehensive sex education, then, should also take into consideration these intersectional issues.

At the end of the event, the overall message was clear: now is the time to act. Those committed to sexual and reproductive health and rights must not be discouraged in the face of the challenges, but encouraged that despite them – despite the global gag rule and precarious sex education in many parts of the world – positive achievements have been made. The teen pregnancy rate in the United States has hit a record low in recent years, and maternal mortality worldwide has also decreased dramatically. These positive reports exemplify that investing in sexual and reproductive health and rights actually gives results. And ultimately, the reason why this issue is so important is that removing the barriers to SRHR fulfillment isn’t just going to benefit women – it’s going to benefit their whole society.

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