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Now is the time to realize health to and through human rights

By Natasha Despoja, High-Level Working Group on Health and Human Rights

The need to realise rights to health and through health has never been more urgent. Discrimination, abuse and violence against women, children and adolescents are the most widespread of human rights violations.

With this in mind, in May 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Human Rights Office established the High-Level Working Group on Health and Human Rights of Women, Children and Adolescents. The Group’s purpose is to secure political support, both nationally and internationally, for the implementation of an integrated health and human rights agenda as part of the larger promise of the sustainable development goals to leave no one behind.

Surrounded by representatives of civil society, NGOs, the health sector, politics and government, it was an exciting occasion at which Group co-chair and former President of Finland Tarja Halonen presented the report to then-WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.

Our report offers an ambitious vision of realizing human rights to health and through health for women, children and adolescents. The report was received with enthusiasm by those involved in the health and human rights sectors. We are all ready to see change and know just how fundamental and powerful health is in the protection and advancement of human rights.

Several Governments gave resounding support for the proposals which include: upholding the right to health in national law, establishing a rights-based approach to health financing and universal health coverage, empowering and protecting those who advocate for rights and collecting rights-sensitive data.

End violence against women

High-Level Working Group Member Natasha Despoja.

Given that preventable death, ill-health and impairment are firmly rooted in the failure to protect human rights, the report is designed to encourage leadership to realise rights to health and through health. As the Chair of a national foundation to prevent violence against women and children in Australia, Our Watch, I am especially aware of the fact that a key determinant of the health of women and children is violence. One of the most heinous manifestations of gender inequality is the scourge of violence.

Globally, more than one in three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some way. In some parts of the region in which I live, the Pacific, the rate is as high as two in three surveyed women. In my own country, Australia, partner violence deaths in Australia are increasing alarmingly — 13 women are reported to have been murdered by a former or current partner in the past seven weeks. Previously we talked about ‘one women a week’ — but now it’s closer to two.

WHO has called violence against women an epidemic. And yet, we don’t see urgent international mobilization to end this atrocity and public health emergency. In too many places, we see apathy and acceptance that this is somehow inevitable and impossible to shift the toxic norms which underlie this violence.

For generations, women’s rights lawyers, human rights defenders and feminists have resisted this apathy, and tirelessly worked to bring gender based violence into the public domain and into legal systems. In many places, they are punished for their courageous work — subjected to smear campaigns and outright physical attacks — often because they have transgressed what is considered acceptable for a woman to do. She should be silent, and not speak out. She should endure the violence, rather than assert her inalienable right to live free from such abuses.

But these activists know that silence is death, and that to address these human rights violations effectively, they must be firmly fixed in the public eye, recognizing that violence against women is both a human rights violation and a health epidemic.

Speak up for sexual and reproductive health

Similarly, continued violations of sexual and reproductive health and rights are tolerated in many places, and in some places even encouraged. We know that the continued unacceptably high rates of maternal mortality are largely preventable — we have the medical know-how, and the interventions needed are not necessarily expensive. But, in many places, these deaths are perceived as inevitable — or even as women’s lot in life.

We know the many positives that access to sexual and reproductive health services can bring: lower maternal and child illness and deaths; greater education and economic opportunities for women; slowed population growth; and planned and safely spaced pregnancies. We know that investing in sexual and reproductive health services is not only beneficial for women and girls, but for the community at large. Despite this knowledge, the realisation of human rights, particularly sexual and reproductive health and rights — including access to safe abortion — remains seriously uneven, contested, and in some cases unattainable, at the country level. The consequences of this for women and adolescent girls are devastating — contributing not only to their ill-health, but also to limiting opportunities in many other areas of life.

We have recently seen the United States Executive reinstate a “global gag” on overseas discussion of abortion by individuals and organisations receiving US federal funding. This — and other decisions that affect women’s health– were made usually as half a dozen men looked on. It was an indisputable signal of the minimal value that these leaders place on women’s lives and health.

Stand up for health

Violence against women and sexual and reproductive health restrictions are among the health and human rights concerns our report addresses. The main message is that it is time to stand up for human rights to health and through health. And to stand up, it takes leadership. We need committed leadership to safeguard the full exercise of women’s, children’s and adolescents’ human rights for their health and for the health of their communities. Even when resources are restricted, committed leadership can make a huge difference to the lives of women, children and adolescents. Even when communities are anxious about ideas of sexual and reproductive choices, leadership can guide, reassure and inform.

A transformative leadership agenda is vital if women, children and adolescents are to realise their health and well-being and to flourish and prosper. This report describes the key dimensions of this agenda.

We urge the world’s leaders to focus their efforts in this regard explicitly on the human rights principles of equality, inclusiveness, non-discrimination, participation and accountability.

The High Level Working Group has placed this issue firmly on the agenda of the WHO and the UN Human Rights Office. It is now time for Governments to put this work into action.

Natasha Despoja is the former Australian Global Ambassador for Women and Girls and a member of the High-Level Working Group on the health and human rights of women, children and adolescents. Working Group members are independent experts, whose opinions do not necessarily constitute an official stance by the UN.

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