Sexual Rights of Women and Girls in the Context of Sustainable Development

Je-ok Presser
June 12, 2017 - UN Geneva  

35th Session of the UN Human Rights Council: Panel Discussion

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, "Sexual rights of women and girls in the context of sustainable development." This article will highlight two of the panelists and close with a short commentary.

The first panelist was 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), a panel of experts convened by the UN Secretary-General 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 sexual rights have come to refer to LGBT rights in many UN discussions, sexual rights actually apply to everyone. The definition of sexual rights, or what this could include, has not found international consensus. Nevertheless, for Ms. Alcalá, sexual rights are basic rights: the right to dignity, privacy, education, marriage, and freedom of expression. She emphasized several sexual rights violations, including virginity testing, sexual harassment, rape, and female genital mutilation (FGM). She highlighted that these sexual rights apply to all people and must be assured without interference by the state.

The second panelist, Dr. Venkatraman Chandra-Mouli, works on Adolescent 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 family about these incidents. He described being shocked when she finally opened up about her experience. He emphasized that women and girls need to be educated on their rights  and learn to speak up about such behavior to not condone sexual harassment. "Silence can kill," said Dr. Chandra-Mouli. He strongly suggested that parents be involved in this education and empower their daughters from an early age, as parents have the biggest impact on their children's behavior.

The panel discussion was made that much more relevant when I witnessed how kindergarten-age girls and boys behaved toward each other at a bus stop. A few kids bullied and physically attacked a girl in front of three kindergarten teachers, who did not, or chose not to, notice and intervene.  The girl 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.

The discourse on sexual rights seems to be increasingly monopolized. Sexual rights violations, such as sex trafficking, rape, FGM 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 influence society in support of the SDGs.