Promoting human rights of women and girls is how Canada can save lives

By Jackie Hansen, Women’s rights campaigner

Canada pledged $2.85 billion from 2010-2015 to reduce maternal and infant mortality in the global South as part of the G8’s Muskoka Initiative. This week, Canada has invited world leaders, the UN, and civil society to Toronto for the “Saving Every Woman Every Child: Within Arm’s Reach” summit on maternal, newborn, and child health (MNCH) to explore the impact of the Muskoka Initiative and chart the path forward.

Back in 2010 when the Muskoka Initiative funding was first announced, Amnesty International, along with other organizations, was critical of the initiative for excluding support and funding for safe abortion services. Amnesty International’s research shows that to reduce maternal mortality rates, women must have access to a full range of sexual and reproductive services.

This week’s summit provides an opportunity for Canada to re-assess its priorities and look at how any future rounds of funding can work to promote both human rights and health, harmonize Canada’s foreign aid and policy priorities, and truly empower women in the global South.

1. Focus on rights, not health

A medical-based approach to MNCH leads to medical solutions to infant and child mortality. These can include things such as improved prenatal care and vaccinations. And of course these are good and necessary interventions.

But focusing on health alone does not address the human rights abuses that place women and children in situations where they may experience poor health.

We know that poverty and gender-based discrimination are the underlying causes that lead to the high number of preventable deaths and injuries that women and girls experience in pregnancy and childbirth each year. And we know that poverty is at the core of why so many children in the global South die before reaching age five.

Health-based solutions alone will not change the conditions that lead to the need for these medical interventions. Future programs should be focused on poverty alleviation and ending gender-based discrimination. Anything else is simply putting a Band-Aid on a wound rather than fighting an infection.

2. Put women at the centre of programming

Women, not mothers, should be at the centre of programming in support of MNCH. And these women should be agents of change who determine the very nature of programming and its implementation, not victims in need of “saving” through foreign aid contributions.

When mothers are at the centre of programming, one looks at how to keep mothers and babies safe.

When women are at the centre of programming, one looks at how women and girls can be equipped with the information, skills and power to participate in shaping the policies and practices that affect their lives. Placing women at the centre of programming is essential for women to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights.

Future programming must support the rights of women and girls to be able to:
• make decisions about their health;
• ask for and receive information about health services;
• decide whether and when to have children;
• choose whether or not to marry;
• access family planning, contraception, safe and legal abortion and maternal healthcare services; and
• live free from rape and other violence, including forced pregnancy, abortion, sterilization, or marriage.

3. Harmonize policy priorities

MNCH, early and forced marriage, and sexual violence in conflict are three of Canada’s foreign policy priorities.

Women and girls have the right to live free from rape and other violence, and to decide whether or when to marry. These rights are at the core of Canada’s commitment to end the practice of early and forced marriage and to support the international call to prevent sexual violence in conflict, protect survivors, and prosecute those responsible for committing acts of violence.

Women and girls, including victims of early and forced marriage, and survivors of sexual violence, also have the right to access a full and comprehensive toolkit of sexual and reproductive health services, including safe and legal abortion.

The Muskoka Initiative has failed to protect the rights of women and girls to make decisions about what sexual and reproductive health services they wish to access by focusing on mothers and not women, and by excluding funding for safe and legal abortion services. This puts Canada’s commitment to MNCH at odds with its commitment to those who have been forced to marry early and those who have experienced sexual violence.

When we talk about human rights, there is no halfway. Canada cannot pick and choose which human rights to respect and promote. Women and girls must be able to make decisions about their bodies and their lives, and Canada’s policies and programming should empower women and girls to make these decisions for themselves.

Respecting, protecting, and promoting the human rights of women and girls. That’s how lives are saved.

Other civil society commentary on the summit:

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