The International Day of Action for Women’s Health is a day dedicated to raising awareness about women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, which has been celebrated since 1987.
Every year, women and health organisations worldwide commemorate this day to draw attention to the ongoing disregard for women’s autonomy, coercion, discrimination, and violence. The day of action holds particular importance this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a regression in the progress of women’s rights protection, increased rates of domestic violence, and amplified women’s poverty. Therefore, the International Day of Action for women’s health strives to resist a rollback on the sexual and reproductive rights of women by raising awareness and educating women about their right to health.
Themes of the Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights Movement:
- Access to quality healthcare
- Access to safe and legal abortion
- Women and Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)/ acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS)
- Violence against women as a global health emergency
- Young people’s sexual and reproductive health rights
Women's bodily autonomy and decision making
Women’s bodily autonomy is a fundamental right that empowers women to make decisions about their bodies. The ability of women to make informed choices about their health is linked with the roles they can embody in society and is thus paramount to achieving gender equality. The women’s right to have control over their body includes reproductive rights, where women have a right to make free and responsible decisions on sexuality-related matters, free of discrimination, violence, and coercion.
Unfortunately, only 55% of women, aged 15–49 years, currently make their own choices about sexual relations, contraceptive use, and sexual health services. Therefore, almost half of women in this age bracket are not licensed to make their own sexual and reproductive health decisions. To possess full bodily autonomy and the capability to make informed decisions about their health, women need the information, services, opportunities, and skills to make these choices. Empowering women to make informed choices is an effective pathway to improving women’s health, as well as allowing women to fulfil their potential as agents of change.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
HIV is a global health issue that is most prevalent in adolescents and young women aged 15–24 years. In 2019, women constituted almost half of the new HIV infections. Although we are making progress in battling this epidemic, and overall, new HIV infections among women are declining, the pace of progression is slow and uneven.
New HIV infections among women in Latin America, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe continue to rise. Women in Sub-Saharan Africa are particularly affected by the epidemic, as around 4,500 adolescent girls and young women became infected with HIV every week in 2019.
Unequal gender norms and power dynamics are what continue to put adolescent girls and young women at a greater risk of contracting HIV and impede their ability to mitigate the impact of the epidemic. For example, discriminating laws and practices, such as those regarding the age of consent and restrict young women’s capacity to access sexual and reproductive health services. Empowering young women and adolescent girls, and guaranteeing their rights is crucial for their bodily autonomy, their ability to utilise the knowledge and skills to negotiate safer sex, and to protect themselves from HIV. The education of women about HIV is important for this empowerment and is urgently needed since only 1/3 of women and girls have comprehensive HIV knowledge. Thus, we must scale up effective interventions to increase HIV knowledge and improve women’s access to sexual health services.
Recently, the supreme court in the USA voted to overturn the Roe v. Wade abortion law, the landmark ruling that enshrined the right to abortion. In 2019 alone, over 300 abortion restrictions were introduced in states across the US, with 14 of these states introducing extremely restrictive laws forbidding abortion after 6 weeks – before many people even know they are pregnant.
Presently, it is already difficult for many women to access the abortion care they need due to a patchwork of abortion laws that impart restrictions. For example, the Introduction Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers laws, (TRAP laws) are designed to force abortion clinics to close, by commanding expensive and medically unnecessary requirements. These restrictive laws act as barriers to women seeking safe abortion care and are therefore endangering women’s lives, as evidenced by the many deaths caused by unsafe abortions. Women of colour bear the brunt of this crisis, as racism creates barriers to critical healthcare access. For example, anti-abortion organisations often target women of colour with racist claims and stereotypes. Women of colour also face poorer health outcomes than white women and have a history of coercion and a lack of bodily autonomy in decisions made about their reproductive health.
Violence against women
Before the global COVID-19 pandemic, 1 in 3 women was exposed to sexual violence over the course of their lifetime. Now, violence against women has been exacerbated further, as the pandemic has generated an alarming increase in sexual, domestic, and other types of violence.
This rise in violence has been explained by increased women’s exposure to violent members at home, due to the lockdown regulations. Additionally, some countries decided to redirect funds away from causes supporting women who are victims of violence and towards COVID-19 relief, which could have further amplified the problem.
Although many agencies and charities have been established to try and combat this global health crisis, the prevalence of violence against women remains shockingly high. This inflation in violence makes increasing investments in prevention and response to violence against women more vital than ever.
Furthermore, sexual and physical violence against women is completely preventable. As opposed to other health crises, such as infectious diseases, violence against women is the consequence of a choice made by another human. Thus, it is critical that we address the violent behaviours towards women and foster a culture where women’s rights are genuinely seen as equal to those of men, and respected. However, there is no simple solution to achieve this. A multi-factor approach is required to effectively prevent violence against women, which involves investment in women’s organisations, governmental involvement, implementation of laws that support equality, and confronting discrimination against women in all forms.
The International Day of Action for Women’s Health serves to draw attention to the global disregard for women’s autonomy, discrimination, and violence. Women’s freedom to make choices and safe spaces are enabled not only by the people who surround them but also by the economic and political structures which shape our societies. At a time when women’s rights, especially sexual and reproductive rights, continue to be routinely violated worldwide, it is essential to resist any rollback and promote sexual and reproductive justice.