UN: Women's bodies being turned into 'battlegrounds'

Thousands of people march to the US Capitol during the Women's March for reproductive rights. The march was the flagship event of a nationwide "Women's Wave" protest in hundreds of cities across the United States on October 8, 2022. [AFP]

Women's bodies have become political "battlegrounds", putting at risk 30 years of progress on sexual and reproductive health for women and girls, the UN warned Wednesday.

Though maternal mortality rates and unwanted pregnancy rates have been steadily falling, progress is now slowing or even flatlining on key measures, said the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN's sexual and reproductive health agency.

Thirty years ago, at a conference in Cairo, 179 countries agreed to put reproductive health at the heart of sustainable development, which "paved the way for decades of progress", said UNFPA chief Natalia Kanem -- who herself attended the conference.

Since then, the rate of unintended pregnancies has fallen by almost 20 percent worldwide and the number of maternal deaths decreased by 34 percent between 2000 and 2020, UNFPA said in its flagship annual State of World Population report, which has been published yearly since 1978.

The number of women using contraceptives has doubled, and at least 162 countries have passed laws against domestic violence.

However, "the rights of women, girls, and gender-diverse people are the subject of increasing pushback", Kanem told a press conference.

"Annual reductions in maternal deaths have flatlined. Since 2016 the world made zero progress in saving women from preventable deaths in pregnancy and childbirth," she stressed.

Reproduction 'politicised'

UNFPA said racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination were also blocking broad gains in sexual and reproductive health for women and girls.

"The data are damning. Women and girls who are poor, belong to ethnic, racial, and indigenous minority groups, or are trapped in conflict settings, are more likely to die because they lack access to timely health care," the agency said.

Kanem also hit out at "the willingness to politicise women's bodies as a battleground", for example on questions linked to fertility treatments and abortion, which is one of the key issues in the US presidential election campaign this year.

UNFPA does not take a position on individual member states' policies, but Kanem said that where legal, abortion should be safe and accessible, and where illegal, post-abortion services -- typically relating to hemorrhage -- should be made available.

Unsafe abortion is a leading cause of maternal death globally, but "often the physician is not going to put unsafe abortion on the death certificate", she said.

"The lives and well-being of women and girls should not be subject to political pressures," Kanem insisted.

Unequal treatment

Kanem said gender-based violence remains rampant in practically every country, while "one woman in four cannot say no to sex".

Almost half of all women are still unable to make decisions about their bodies, nor to exercise their rights regarding sexual and reproductive health.

Last month, legislators in The Gambia began considering reversing the 2015 ban on female genital mutilation.

Kanem noted this came at a time when there are "over 230 million survivors of FGM -- and there's been a 15-percent increase in that number since 2016".

The report said that although women of all socio-economic classes and ethnicities report easier access to health care over time, the most marginalised women have seen the least improvement.

Across the Americas, women of African descent are more likely to die when giving birth than white women. In the United States, the rate is three times higher than the national average, the agency said.

Women with disabilities are up to 10 times more likely to experience gender-based violence than their peers without disabilities.

An African woman who experiences pregnancy and childbirth complications is around 130 times more likely to die from them than a woman in Europe and North America, UNFPA said.

On maternal mortality, Kanem concluded: "Women should not die while giving life. This is a worthy pursuit."

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