Gender Equality

Gender inequality is preventing global access to reproductive and sexual health care

Hundreds of millions of women are not able to choose what happens to their bodies.

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Though the world has made major strides in increasing access to reproductive and sexual health over the past few decades, many girls and women are still unable to exercise their rights.

Gender discriminatory norms and social attitudes persist around the world and prevent women from making decisions about their own bodies — including if and when they want to marry, have sex, or start a family – a new report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) found.

The annual report assesses access to reproductive and sexual health around the world, and this year, for the first time, also included data on women’s decision-making power when it comes to health care, use of contraception, and sexual intercourse.

And the results showed there is still much work to be done.

“Despite the increasing availability of contraceptives over the years, hundreds of millions of women today still have no access to them, and to the reproductive choices that come with them,” UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem said in a press release. “Without access, they lack the power to make decisions about their own bodies, including whether or when to become pregnant.”

“The lack of this power — which influences so many other facets of life, from education to income to safety — leaves women unable to shape their own futures,” she added.

After surveying 51 countries, UNFPA found that only 57% of women are able to make their own decisions about contraception and health care, as well as when and with whom they choose to have sexual intercourse.

Cultural perceptions that hold women and girls as inferior to men and boys also lock them into systems of inequality where they have little agency and bargaining power.

Gender-based violence and child marriage are ways in which gender inequality continues to prevent women and girls from being able to choose what to do with their bodies, the report highlights.

But amending gender discriminatory laws to better protect the rights of girls and women, particularly against sexual violence, can help combat this and improve reproductive and sexual health.

Empowering girls to stay in school and complete their education is key as well, UNFPA says. And a crucial step to establishing gender equality and ensuring that women and girls everywhere are able to exercise their rights is including boys and men in the conversation, in order to transform attitudes and beliefs that perpetuate gender inequality.

Since UNFPA, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, was founded, access to modern contraceptives — including condoms, IUDs, and birth control pills — has more than doubled. And today, nearly 59% of women are using contraception.

Globally, 84% of women between the ages of 15 and 49 who are married or in relationships are having their family planning needs met, the report says, but the most vulnerable girls and women are least likely to have access to such resources and services.

According to the report, “access to critical sexual and reproductive health care is generally lowest among the poorest 20% of households.”

“Women in the poorest households may find themselves with little or no access to sexual and reproductive health care, leading to unintended pregnancies, higher risk of illness or death from pregnancy or childbirth, and the need to give birth on their own, without the assistance of a doctor, nurse or midwife,” the report says.

Approximately 35 million women, girls, and young people will need critical reproductive and sexual health services this year, according to UNFPA.

And ensuring that everyone has access to the health services they need and the ability to exercise their rights, goes hand in hand with ending poverty and achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

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