A review of key trends in relation to SRHR in Geneva-based human rights spaces in 2020

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When the woman who founded a reproductive health centre in the United States in 1971, two years before abortion was legalized, calls COVID-19 one of the “most, most challenging” times she’s faced, we should perhaps be alerted to the potential, extent, and reach of the changes to access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services that have either already taken place or been attempted in the past year. It took half a century for the analysis contained in the claim “the personal is political'' to gain mainstream recognition; it took six months for the gains signaled by the slogan to be demeaned and deprioritized in many parts of the world. If we ever needed a reminder of the interconnectedness of social justice struggles, we could not ask for a better (or more horrific) one than the national and global effects of the decades-long devastation of public, social, and political resources and rights carried out by rightwing governments, opportunistic corporations, conservative religious leaders, and corrupt politicians and local elites. If we are in any doubt that these changes are considered desirable, and even long overdue, by the few who benefit from them materially, politically, and ideologically, we need look no further than the pronouncements of anti-immigration proponents of strict borders and unilateralism. 


At SRI, we believe that it would be foolish to treat COVID-19 as a temporary hiccup in a generally progressivist tale of the inevitable triumph of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) as universally upheld human rights. Experience teaches us to always prepare to have SRHR gains be stalled, coopted, or deprioritized in a crisis, any crisis. The SRHR priority going forward must, therefore, be a refusal to accept “the new normal” – the normal of denial, deprivation, and discrimination – and recognize that the “war” that has been declared on the virus masks another war, one on fundamental and interconnected human rights. The further disempowerment of the impoverished, the unhoused, of gender and sexuality minorities, women in rural areas seeking abortion, adolescents in need of comprehensive sexuality education, sex workers, and women forced into marriage and childbearing – particularly in low-income countries and in low-income communities in wealthy countries – will be written off as the collateral damage of this war. Accepting the war analogy and the discourse of securitization that accompanies it means acceding to the logic of the necessary sacrifice of “foot soldiers” (frontline workers, in this case) and of the weak and most vulnerable among us, and provides a convenient distraction from the impact of the prioritization of military spending and of neoliberal policies of austerity and privatization on health systems and social security nets worldwide that have led us to this crisis. Research from different parts of the world clearly shows that there needs to be a joint, speedy, and concerted effort to catch the backsliding on women's rights, including SRHR, and we can expect that economic recession will be used to justify what the nationalist warcry might fail to. 


The extent and speed of COVID-19 related initiatives – by governments, international institutions such as the IMF, and multinational corporations – have, at least, made them starkly visible, and people all over the world are not only aware of but also attempting to rise in protest against various rights violations following from or built into such initiatives. At institutional levels too, there is widespread alarm at the actual and potential consequences of allowing human rights to suffer in the name of public health or national security...