There’s nothing private about women’s sexual and reproductive rights

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Women on strike in Poland in October 2016. [Michael Wende/Shutterstock]

In 2017, women’s sexual and reproductive rights should be recognised as human rights. But first they must be freed from the political agenda, writes Carina Autengruber.

Carina Autengruber is vice-president of the European Youth Forum.

I am a young woman in her mid-20s. I have grown up in a of  general agreement that women should earn the same for equal work, that women should be allowed to vote that we can move around more or less freely. I am also, however, part of a new generation of young women who are experiencing a backlash when it comes to the fulfilment of our rights.

You might remember the photo of president Trump that went viral on social media end of January this year. The photo showed seven white men — one of them Trump himself — signing a law that would remove US funding to any overseas organisation offering abortions. We do not have to look across the pond to see that in 2017, young women, and more broadly speaking young people, still face struggles accessing their sexual and reproductive rights.

Know your body right(s)!

Misconceptions around young people’s sexuality, identity or body image remain persistent in society. Often young people find themselves in a situation where they either have nobody to turn to or receive information that is simply false or doesn’t show the full picture. It is not young people who feel ashamed of their sexuality; it is often older adults who have issues discussing it. And let’s be frank, this is a serious problem.

The right to health is a human right. But young people can only access this right when they are provided with sexual education that is comprehensive, medically accurate, and free from stigma and discrimination. Sexuality is an integral part of our humanity and not addressing this issue means putting the health and lives of young people at risk. We need to shed light on the topic of sexuality and discuss it in all its dimensions. Our society needs to allow for an open conversation, where young people can access information and ask for advice.

Safe abortion remains a target

A wire coat hanger or an illegal trip abroad do not define struggles that women faced in the past – in 2017 they remain a sad reality for many women across the continent. Many European countries are shamefully failing women looking for a safe abortion. The most recent example is Poland, where a controversial proposal to ban abortion was withdrawn after more than 7 million Polish women protested.

However, this was only until a new one was made soon after, seemingly with the same objective: to limit women’s sexual and reproductive rights. In Ireland, for many years, women have also led the fight to repeal the 8th Amendment to the constitution, which criminalises abortion in all cases except when the life of the woman is at risk. Malta however — this tiny state in the Mediterranean Sea — while being the leading example when it comes to the advancements of LGBT rights, forbids abortion in any circumstances. Even when the woman was raped. Even when the life of the woman is at risk.

In countries where abortion is legal, women’s rights are still undermined, as they face economic, political or social barriers. Procedures might be costly; there might be a mandatory waiting list or a lack of trained health professionals. Too often the fact that safe abortions are a matter of human rights, health, social justice, and bodily autonomy are ignored. At the same time, we know what restricting abortions does. There is clear evidence that limitations to the right to abortion do not lead to fewer abortions, but to more unsafe ones. So why do many governments choose that path, instead of providing women with their right to full bodily autonomy and integrity?

Defining the political

There is nothing private about women’s sexual and reproductive rights as long as politicians and society try to limit the decisions they can make, or judge them. There is nothing private about my body when decisions are taken for me. Or, to frame it in the words of second-wave feminism, the private is political, and we need to acknowledge that. We need to acknowledge that, as long as rights come within a political sphere, they will be challenged; they can be given or taken away. But we do not need to accept this, especially in the latter case.

As a young political activist, I demand my right to have control over my body and decide freely on matters related to sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of any form of discrimination and violence. I know my rights and I am standing up for them.

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