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Solidarity and networked, multilateral action for the exercise of women’s full human rights: Remarks by Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women, Sima Bahous, at the SheDecides+5 Conference in Brussels (19 May 2022)

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[As delivered]

I thank Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, Belgian Development Cooperation and SheDecides for convening us today.

We know that women’s and girls’ bodily autonomy and decision-making around their health is central both to women’s and girls’ individual independence and the overall achievement of gender equality and sustainable development.

Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights include women’s rights to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality and individual agency, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.

Those rights are not universal. We are seeing the stark consequences for women of legal restrictions on sexual and reproductive health care at the moment. For example, depending on which border they cross, Ukrainian women and girls who have been raped as they escape war may be unable to escape the resulting pregnancy. Elsewhere in the world, a woman can be convicted of murder when she naturally miscarries.

The SDGs emphasize higher levels of informed choice in reproductive decision-making. Yet, data show that only 57 per cent of women are able to make their own decisions over their sexual and reproductive health and rights.

One of our civil society partners, the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), recently provided UN Women with evidence of how anti-rights, anti-gender backlash and polarization are paralysing intergovernmental spaces.

The pushback on gender equality is well-funded and well-orchestrated. It deliberately seeks to undermine access to the human rights system for women and girls, LGBTIQ+ people and other marginalized groups. This is linked to wider developments. These include the rise of populism, the rise of fundamentalism and the rise of violent extremism, along with efforts to call into question international human rights law and weaken multilateral cooperation. It also includes an increased emphasis on so-called ‘traditional values’.

Issues such as comprehensive sexuality education, or CSE, remain contested. This is despite clear evidence that CSE is a powerful tool to prevent poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes, including sexually transmitted infections and early and unintended pregnancy. In many contexts, key stakeholders refuse to endorse entire CSE curriculums merely because of the word “sexuality”.

Dear partners, it is up to us to meet such regression with solidarity and networked, multilateral action.

We need to work together, and to further increase our work in the intergovernmental space. That means engaging with Member States to urgently bring about legislative changes that support women’s and girls’ bodily autonomy. It means funding long-term legal advocacy for these rights. And it means fully supporting women’s and girls’ networks and movements, including financially.

At the local level, we must work to change the social norms that drive backlash against comprehensive sexuality education based on traditions and beliefs. We are guided in all of this work by the Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 5.

It is also critical to continue forging multilateral and intergenerational partnerships, supporting the participation of young people. We saw the impact of these at the Generation Equality Forum, which launched an Action Coalition on Bodily Autonomy and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. Our task now is to ensure that commitments made towards comprehensive sexuality education, contraception, safe abortion and a world free from gender-based violence are accompanied by investment and action.

We look to the SheDecides movement as a valued partner in this, with the ability to leverage movements and networks and create mass action and support. Going forward, we need see yet more progress in the work already being done by SheDecides in mobilizing solidarity worldwide.

Belgium and the SheDecides partners have convened an inspirational group of gender equality champions, including Generation Equality Commitment Makers and Action Coalition Leaders. I am honoured to be among you today, and UN Women stands with you and is committed to working together.

By working together, we can ensure that women, girls and diverse populations around the world can fully exercise their bodily autonomy and full human rights.

Thank you.