Restore People’s Reproductive Health Rights Lost During Covid: UN Special Rapporteur

Right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health

- Photo I Peace Alberto IteritekaBurundi Women

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to health Dr Tlaleng-Mofokeng has called for efforts to restore people’s reproductive health rights that have been eroded during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Sexual and reproductive health rights, are human rights,” Dr Tlaleng-Mofokeng reminded the Member States in the General Assembly on Wednesday.

She was presenting her report on the effect of the pandemic on physical and mental health services.

“Millions of women globally had limited or no access to maternal and newborn healthcare, some 14 million women lost access to contraception, and specialized services for victims of gender-based violence became inaccessible when they were needed most,” said Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng.

In her report, she examines the impact of legislation and policy, services and funding in maternal, newborn and child health services, family planning and contraception, adolescent sexual and reproductive health, comprehensive support for sexual and gender-based violence survivors, HIV/AIDS and reproductive cancers.

Part of the report found out that the COVID-19 pandemic deepened the cracks in health systems, particularly with respect to those services important for affirming and realizing sexual and reproductive health rights. 

Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng says many national responses to the COVID-19 pandemic demanded policy change, innovation and agility, and in some regions, which resulted in a demonstration of the ability to enable the delivery of health care while upholding human rights.

“As policy changes during emergencies often become incorporated in long-standing, non-emergency law, it is critical that policy changes be examined during this pandemic for their impact on equality and equitable access to sexual and reproductive health rights moving forward,” she recommends.

As part of the right to health, the UN expert called on States to move beyond the COVID-19 pandemic to rebuild and strengthen health systems for advancing sexual and reproductive health rights for all.

“Governments must remove obstacles and ensure full access to quality services, including maternal health care, contraception and abortion services, screening for reproductive cancers and comprehensive sexual education,” she said.

However, Dr Mofokeng noted that many obstacles continue to stand between individuals and their exercise of their rights to health, rooted in patriarchy and colonialism, and others in structural and systemic inequalities.

“Patriarchal oppression is universal, permeates all societies and is at the very origin of the erosion of autonomy and the control of girls and women’s bodies and sexuality to the detriment of their enjoyment of sexual and reproductive rights,” she spelt out.

“Colonialism has permeated patriarchy across regions and its legacy continues today through laws, policies and practices that deny or restrict sexual and reproductive rights and criminalize gender diverse identities and consensual adult same-sex acts”, added the Special Rapporteur.

She reminded governments that sexual and reproductive health rights are rooted in binding human rights treaties, jurisprudence, and consensus outcome documents of international conferences.

“I call on States to respect and protect key principles of autonomy, bodily integrity, dignity and well-being of individuals, especially in relation to sexual and reproductive health rights”, she said.

“I pledge to engage with States and all relevant actors to uphold the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”.

Dr. Mofokeng and all Special Rapporteurs are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. Their positions are honorary, they are not UN staff nor are they paid for their work.

In July, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for efforts to protect people’s reproductive health rights as the world marks World Population Day.

“In every corner of the world, we are seeing a reversal of hard-won gains and an erosion of women’s reproductive rights, choices and agency. With the onset of the pandemic, resources for sexual and reproductive health services were diverted,” he said.

“These gaps in access to health rights are unacceptable. Women cannot be alone in this fight,” the secretary-general added.