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Advancing Rights, Transforming Lives – Sexual & Reproductive Health & Rights

Advancing rights, transforming lives: UNFPA strategic engagement with the United Nations human rights system to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights.


The international human rights system is the result of a tremendous investment of time, political capital and other resources by the international community over many decades since the founding of the United Nations in 1945. Successes include the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and nine core human rights treaties, and the establishment of various United Nations human rights monitoring mechanisms. Significant challenges remain, however, in terms of effective domestication by countries of these international agreements and in their implementation on the ground.

Recent reforms of the international human rights system, including establishment of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2006, have been driven in part by concerns over the gap between universal values and local realities and a determination to bridge it. The United Nations system has gradually integrated a human rights-based approach to development into its programmes and operations. A key pillar of that approach is to leverage State engagement with the United Nations human rights mechanisms – the Universal Periodic Review, Special Procedures and Treaty Bodies – to inform the recommendations generated by those mechanisms and work with States to support their implementation.

This report tracks the domestic implementation of recommendations related to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). It seeks to develop an understanding of the degree to which United Nations entities in general, and UNFPA in particular, have been able to leverage State engagement with the human rights mechanisms to drive real and measurable progress towards enjoyment of human rights on the ground.

The report provides an overview of the origins and content of the “global human rights implementation agenda”. It also looks at the degree to which women’s rights, gender equality and SRHR have been taken up by the three main United Nations human rights mechanisms. It does so by analysing the recommendations generated by these mechanisms to understand the degree to which they have focused on issues related to SRHR.

In five country case studies, the report assesses the degree to which recipient States have been able to take deliberate and relevant steps to implement SRHR recommendations, with UNFPA and United Nations Country Team support. It also assesses the degree to which UNFPA and the United Nations Country Teams have been able to feed information and policy advice into State review – implementation – reporting cycles to influence and inform subsequent recommendations.

Strategic engagement with human rights mechanisms has made an impact. It has:

  • Deepened the legal and medical recognition of mistreatment or discrimination during childbirth (obstetric violence) from a human rights perspective in Costa Rica.
  • Shifted societal perceptions about harmful social norms and strengthened culturally-sensitive approaches by the State to eliminate female genital mutilation (FGM) in Côte d’Ivoire.
  • Strengthened action by the government and supported more specific recommendations from human rights mechanisms on gender-based violence (GBV) in Jordan.
  • Deepened and guided State action to support adolescent sexual and reproductive health (ASRH) through youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services in Kazakhstan.
  • Supported practical action on comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) inside and outside of the school system and tracked State action to implement its obligations related to CSE in the Maldives.

A sixth global case study details how UNFPA as an organization has sought to better support and thereby empower its country offices to leverage State engagement with the United Nations human rights mechanisms to deliver tangible and measurable improvements in the enjoyment of SRHR. The section describes the UNFPA “global support ecosystem” – gender and human rights advisers in regional offices, a headquarters-based global human rights adviser, and the UNFPA Representation Office in Geneva – and considers how each provides distinct yet complementary support to UNFPA Country Offices.

The report draws conclusions and observations from the case studies and the quantitative analysis:

  1. The United Nations human rights system works because it is premised on the full involvement and engagement of States, which are the primary human rights duty-bearers.
  2. Close cooperation between UNFPA and governments is critically important. Such cooperation may be bilateral or as part of United Nations Country Teams (UNCT). It must also be understood that governments are not unitary entities, but function through different “moving parts” with different interests and priorities, making the relationship of the United Nations with relevant line ministries especially valuable. There are also significant benefits to be seen where UNFPA Country Offices work with bilateral donors present in the country to raise the profile of SRHR issues.
  3. The United Nations human rights system can have a significant impact on socially or culturally-sensitive topics in a given national context. Because the work of the United Nations human rights mechanisms is based on cooperation with States themselves, the mechanisms’ recommendations can have a powerful influence on national policies and practices.
  4. Implementation should be seen and pursued as a democratic rather than a bureaucratic process, involving parliamentarians, judges, national human rights institutions (NHRIs) and civil society. There is value in pursuing both top-down and bottom-up approaches to addressing human rights concerns, especially when they relate to sensitive societal issues such as SRHR.
  5. Drawing attention to the human rights implications of harmful practices offers a powerful communications strategy, shifting an issue from the abstract to the human. At the same time, it is important to remember that real human rights change does not happen overnight. It takes time and is usually based on incremental steps towards a final objective.
  6. This report also demonstrates the importance of engaging with the three main United Nations human rights mechanisms: the Universal Periodic Review, Special Procedures and Treaty Bodies. It also demonstrates the importance of engaging with each stage of the review – implementation – reporting cycle, on a perpetual basis. Each of the mechanisms has different strengths and weaknesses, and all must be leveraged in order to move SRHR forward in a human rights context.
  7. There is value in generating more and better SRHR recommendations from the mechanisms to States. The quantitative analyses and case studies presented in this report show positive trends in this regard. However, more needs to be done. More of the reviewing States in the UPR Working Group and from all regions should extend SRHR recommendations to States under review, for example. Another observation is that the engagement of the United Nations and national civil society with a State’s periodic reporting processes for Treaty Bodies or UPR can help to sharpen recommendations by tailoring them to the evolving national context.
  8. The review – implementation – reporting cycle is ongoing and permanent. Efforts of government ministries and/or civil society, supported by UNFPA and the United Nations Country Team, do not stop with adoption of a new law, but must continue so as to ensure that the law is implemented, and to ensure that progress is not reversed.
  9. Data collection, both at the outset to assess the scale and nature of a given human rights challenge and feed that information into the mechanisms, and later to inform relevant United Nations strategies and plans, is a critical component of the perpetual assessment of effectiveness of the United Nations human rights mechanisms relative to SRHR. This report represents an important contribution to document and advance the integration of SRHR-related human rights recommendations in country programmes, by identifying and building on existing good practices, while also helping to address areas of potential empirical neglect.

The five country case studies demonstrate that the United Nations human rights mechanisms, complemented by the wider United Nations system including UNFPA, have a measurable impact on the domestic enjoyment of human rights. The case studies provide anecdotal and empirical evidence of real-world change in support of SRHR.

This analysis underscores the important role that United Nations human rights mechanisms play in advancing the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and its Programme of Action. UNFPA has an important normative role in influencing these mechanisms and in working to operationalize human rights norms at the country level. Yet more can be done. The human rights mechanisms can pay more attention to SRHR issues as part of their monitoring mandates; and UNFPA can influence this engagement through more systematic and comprehensive engagement with the United Nations human rights mechanisms. This in turn will ensure more credible, practical and transformative recommendations by the United Nations human rights system in efforts to support Member States advance their international human rights commitments.

Извор: WUNRN – 17.07.2023


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