The 35th Session of the Human Rights Council focused special attention on tackling issues regarding women’s rights and their empowerment. There were several side events which addressed the sexual rights of women and girls. One was hosted by the mission of Denmark and was titled, “Sexual rights of women and girls in the context of sustainable development”. This article will highlight the messages of two panelists and close with a short commentary.

The first panelist is Ms. Maria Jose Alcalá, Head of the Independent Accountability Panel (IAP) Secretariat for Every Woman, Every Child, Every Adolescent and the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health (PMNCH), which is a panel of experts convened by the United Nations Secretary-General (UNSG) to provide an independent and transparent review of progress and challenges on the implementation of the 2016-30 Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescent’s Health. She stressed that even though the connotation of sexual rights has come to refer to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) rights in many UN discussions, sexual rights actually applies to everyone.

The definition of sexual rights or what this could include has not found international consensus. Nevertheless, she mentioned that having sexual rights means to have basic rights, the right to dignity, privacy, education, about whom to marry, freedom of expression and to receive basic information about contraception, which could prevent HIV, for instance. Some sexual rights violations she mentioned were virginity testing, sexual harassment, rape and Female Genital Mutilation. She highlighted that these sexual rights apply to all people and must be assured without the interference of the state.

The second panelist is Dr. Venkatraman Chandra-Mouli, who works on Adolescents Sexual and Reproductive Health (ARSRH) in the World Health Organization’s Department of Reproductive health and Research. He told the audience a personal story about his younger sister, who was subjected to sexual harassment several times on her way to school in India. His sister never told her parents about these incidents, nor any of her brothers including himself. He described his shock at finding out about her experience when he asked if she had ever been sexually harassed. He used this personal example to stress that women and girls need to know about their rights, that they can raise their voices when necessary and how they should go about doing this.

By stating that “silence can kill”, he emphasized that girls need to know about their rights, that they should not condone sexual harassment and that they should learn to speak up.

By stressing the importance of parents empowering girls from an early age, such as by teaching them to raise their voices and how to stand up for their rights, he wished that parents would educate themselves about how to do so. He concluded with the message that parents are the first in line to educate their children and have the biggest impact on their behavior.       

The statements received during the panel discussion were made even clearer when this author paid close attention to how kindergarten age girls and boys behaved toward each other at a bus stop. A few kids bullied and even physically attacked a girl in front of three kindergarten teachers, who did not, or chose not, to notice and intervene. The girl herself did not raise her voice or try to protect herself, but when a boy had his cap taken away by another boy, he screamed loudly. In this way, he drew attention to himself, causing the kindergarten teacher to intervene.

To conclude, the discourse on sexual rights seems to be more and more monopolized. Sexual rights violations, such as sex trafficking and rape, Female Genital Mutilation and child marriage, should not be forgotten. By protecting the dignity, intimacy and sexual rights of women and girls, they can be empowered to become leaders and change makers in society in support of the SDG’s.

This article is reprinted with permission from the WFWPI UN Newsletter, Autumn 2017.

Je-ok Presser

Author: Je-ok Presser

Intern at the WFWPI UN Office Geneva

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