December 21, 2021

Sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls

Women’s control over their own bodies is central to achieving gender equality. Denying or limiting women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive rights has devastating consequences for their lives, and repercussions for their families and communities. 

What are sexual and reproductive health and rights?

Sexual and reproductive health and rights means the right for everyone, regardless of age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, HIV status or other aspects of identity, to make informed choices regarding their own sexuality and reproduction.

It includes the right to make informed choices about whether or when they have children, the right to access the full range of affordable and informed family planning services, including safe abortion, the right to accurate information and services to prevent and treat sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV and AIDS, and sexual health information and education. 

ActionAid supports the rights of women and girls around the world to claim their full range of sexual and reproductive rights, and we challenge practices that deny them control over their own bodies. 

The impact of restricting access to safe abortions

Around the world, many countries restrict access to safe, legal, affordable abortion, putting thousands of women’s lives at risk. Recent studies estimate that 8–18% of maternal deaths worldwide are due to unsafe abortion, and the number of abortion-related deaths in 2014 ranged from 22,500 to 44,000.1

Most of these deaths occur in developing countries, with the highest number in Africa. Allowing women and girls access to information about their sexual and reproductive health and rights, including modern contraception and safe abortion, would prevent unplanned pregancies, STIs, and would save the lives of some of the poorest, most marginalised women and girls. 

It would also have a positive impact on gender equality more broadly, including women’s economic rights. While there continues to be strong opposition to sexual and reproductive health and rights in many parts of the world, this poses a threat to women’s health and lives.

The connection between domestic violence and sexual and reproductive health and rights 

One in three women globally will face violence in their lifetime. Violence against women and girls (VAWG) is intrinsically linked to the denial of access to sexual and reproductive health and rights – meaning that many women do not have control over their body and their fertility.

Domestic violence is the most common form of violence against women. It manifests itself in physical, sexual or emotional abuse as well as controlling behaviours by a current or former partner. This has a profound affect on women’s abilities to prevent unwanted pregnancies and puts them at increased risk of sexually transmitted infections

Attempting to address sexual and reproductive health and rights without addressing violence against women will deny millions of women the right to full control of their bodies and lives. The links between them and the gender inequality at their root must be recognised. If it is not, progress on sexual and reproductive health and rights – including family planning – will be slow, unsustainable and will leave women and girls who experience violence behind. 

Why FGM is a form of violence against women and girls

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the partial or full cutting of a girl’s clitoris and labia, for non-medical reasonsIt is a form of violence against women and girls because it is used to control a survivor’s body. 

The families of girls undergoing FGM can be unaware of the devastating risks of this practice for girls’ health: FGM can cause severe bleeding, infection, infertility and even death. Between 100 and 140 million women and girls have undergone FGM worldwide.

What is a child bride?

Child marriage is defined as a formal marriage or informal union before the age of 18. Girls are disproportionately more likely than boys to be married before this age. 

Early or forced child marriage puts girls at a higher risk of sexual, physical and psychological violence throughout their lives.  It is a violation of girls’ rights as, very often, marriage happens against the girl’s will and she is physically and emotionally unprepared for sexual activity, pregnancy and child birth. 

Child brides often marry much older men and have limited power to choose whether they have sex and when to use protection and family planning methods. This leaves them vulnerable to forced sex and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV, and unplanned pregancies. Nearly 70 million girls worldwide have been married before the age of 18 – many of them against their will.