How does SRHR fit into the feminist foreign policy as part of the post-2015 agenda?

Speech by Minister for International Development Cooperation Isabella Lövin at the High-level Dialogue on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) and Gender Equality in the Post-2015 Development Framework, in the Swedish Riksdag, 10 June 2015.

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I am very happy to be here today. I am proud that Sweden has a long history of being at the forefront of the global fight for sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). Our mothers and grandmothers fought for women’s liberation – for women’s participation in politics and the workforce, and for a woman’s right to decide over her body and reproduction. We are harvesting the fruits of their labour and I would argue that we, women and men, have a moral obligation to continue their struggle, in Sweden and internationally – because women’s rights can never be taken for granted. 

This morning I returned from a trip to Mozambique, a country with great potential for growth and development. However, there is one big obstacle: the status of women and girls. Half of all marriages take place before the age of 18. And the vast majority of these children are girls. Girls should be in school, not at home taking care of husbands and babies. The irony, though, is that the sexual abuse of girls in schools by teachers and others is so great that many parents do not want to send their daughters to school. This is an untenable situation.

Consequently, we are strengthening the work on SRHR in the new strategy launched in Maputo on Monday. And I have also seen that change is possible. I met the fantastic Futebal da Forca team – teenage girls playing fearless football and discussing SRHR before the games. Their coach was earnestly maintaining that they have rights, that they shouldn’t risk having babies, that they should continue to fulfil their dreams. The club provided them a safe place and an opportunity to see an alternative future.

On every trip I have made as minister, I have noted a similar pattern of control and violence against women: in Bangladesh, where the legalisation on child marriages is currently being discussed; in Liberia, where almost 90 per cent of women have undergone genital mutilation; and in Lebanon, where trafficking is increasing as a result of the war in Syria and the serious refugee situation.

Many people I speak with are noticing a growing resistance against the rights of women and LGBT individuals in the world –not just in the form of ISIL and other violent extremist groups, for whom the control of women’s sexuality is at the very heart of their existence and rhetoric – but also in negotiation rooms and within nationalistic and populist parties in Europe. We need to join forces: governments, parliamentarians, CSOs and other relevant actors. This is another reason why SRHR is a central part of a feminist government’s work.

The systematic violence and oppression against women is one of the most pervasive human rights abuses of our time – and a huge obstacle for the development of society at large.

Accordingly, it is not by chance that we estimate that nearly 85 per cent of bilateral aid directly or indirectly affects gender equality. Swedish support to SRHR makes up around 60 per cent of our Swedish development assistance for health and around 7 per cent of our total bilateral and multilateral development cooperation.

The new sustainable development goals offer a great opportunity for change. When we empower women and girls we empower their families and their future children. We empower communities, we empower nations, and ultimately we reduce poverty. 

Within the post-2015 framework, Sweden, together with other likeminded countries from various regions, has been working hard to advance SRHR issues and to ensure they are included under both the gender equality and health goals. That being said, we would of course have liked to see an even stronger text on SRHR.

It is crucial to deal with SRHR as a gender equality issue and not reduce it to merely a health issue. This dual track reflects the Swedish approach to SRHR. Sweden was vocal in supporting this approach during the negotiations in the Open Working Group. This focus on the rights and gender equality aspects of SRHR has now received even more emphasis with Sweden’s feminist foreign policy.  

Ensuring SRHR for all will also have a direct impact on the possibilities of achieving many of the other targets in the future post-2015 agenda. Sweden recognises the clear links between SRHR and areas such as decent work, economic rights, peaceful societies and political participation of women.

For example: boys are twice as likely as girls to attend secondary school. One of the primary causes of girls dropping out of school is early marriage or pregnancy. It is vital to offer young people comprehensive sexuality education, youth friendly services and contraceptives so that girls can remain in school as long as boys.

Women and girls should also have the right and access to legal and safe abortions. Making abortion illegal does not reduce the number of abortions, it only drives them underground.

Sweden put the feminist foreign policy into action in the negotiations on the EU Council conclusions on Gender in Development that were adopted late May. Sweden fought hard, with other likeminded countries, for strong language. For far too long, the EU has not been able to agree on a strong common position on SRHR – crucial at this stage with increasing resistance in negotiations on the SDGs and how to finance and implement the goals.

The hard work gave results – the outcome provides us with a solid foundation for future EU action on implementing the post-2015 development agenda.

There are three main elements in the Council conclusions that are of particular relevance to the post-2015 agenda:

Firstly, the conclusions underline the importance of ensuring coherence between internal and external EU policies at all levels in guaranteeing the fulfilment of rights of women and girls, and of groups such as LGBTI persons. The conclusions state that women’s and girls’ rights, gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls must be at the core of the post-2015 agenda.

Secondly, the Council emphasises that “gender equality is both a goal in itself and a means to achieve sustainable development. It stresses that ambitious objectives must be matched with adequate financial and non-financial means of implementation, and a strong political commitment from all actors and at all levels.”

Thirdly, the Council reaffirms “the EU’s commitment to the promotion, protection and fulfilment of the right of every individual to have full control over, and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality and sexual and reproductive health, free from discrimination, coercion and violence. The Council further stresses the need for universal access to quality and affordable comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information, education, including comprehensive sexuality education, and health-care services.”

The need for accountability to ensure women’s empowerment and the fulfilment of SRHR is evident. Sweden and the EU are vocal advocates for establishing a well-structured monitoring, accountability and review framework, based on a multi-stakeholder approach.

Sweden has worked strategically throughout the negotiations to secure SRHR and gender equality in the post-2015 agenda. 

The strategic cross-regional cooperation with likeminded member states and civil society has been – and continues to be – crucial.

At this point, as we are approaching the final phase of the negotiations, we do not foresee reopening the agreed targets on SRHR and SRH.

In the event of any unforeseen turns in the negotiations, Sweden will of course engage actively with likeminded countries, both in and outside the EU, in order to safeguard strong language.

The contributions and the role of CSOs are also imperative, and Sweden has worked closely with civil society throughout the negotiations. I say this in terms of strengthening evidence-based action and ensuring accountability, but also in terms of cross-regional bridge-builders. The level of mobilisation is as impressive as it is valuable, especially in the global women’s rights and LGBT rights movements.

Ensuring that women and girls AND men and boys have full autonomy over their lives, bodies and sexualities is a first crucial step towards fulfilling human rights, achieving gender equality, and enhancing health and well-being, as well as the well-being of society as a whole.

This must be at the heart of the post-2015 agenda!