Last year, our work continued to highlight how sexual rights are profoundly impacted by the interrelated global crises brought on by capitalism through rampant neoliberalism, unchecked extractivism and climate degradation, violent populism and nationalism, soaring inequality within and between states, and entrenched patriarchal, racist, classist and ableist systems of oppression.
In 2023, SRI held a series of conversations focusing on the political economy of sexual rights. These conversations deepened our understanding of how debt, sanctions, aid conditionality, extractivism and (neo-) colonialism erode governments' capacity to meet their international human rights obligations – even when they want to. They also highlighted the complicity among Global South states with neoliberal policies and the cynical manipulation of geopolitical tensions on key issues related to sexual and reproductive health and rights. The conversations also provided evidence and analysis, which will inform SRI’s work on these themes and identify new entry points for advancing SRHR.
The ongoing attacks on progressive language at the Human Rights Council have been exemplified this year by states seeking the removal of the term “gender” from the language of multiple resolutions. They are part of a concerning trend where this language and the common understanding of gender and sexuality are being systematically attacked and undermined. Tensions between autonomy and protectionism are also increasingly present at the Council. They are often illustrated by proposals to “protect” women and girls that ultimately deny their autonomy, freedom and rights.
Finally, 2023 has been marked by the ongoing genocide in Gaza; in 2024, we will continue to demand that the international community uphold Palestinians’ right to self-determination and the right of return and condemn Israel’s colonial apartheid regime imposed on the Palestinian people. As long as the people of Palestine are not free, none of us who struggle for justice will be free.
Read below for our highlights of 2023.
Our work at the Human Rights Council
This year, in collaboration with SRI partners and many other civil society organisations, we made more than 35 oral statements to the debates, panels and discussions of the Human Rights Council. These statements covered a range of issues, such as the integration of a gender perspective through the work of the HRC, unilateral coercive measures, the legacies of colonialism, digital technologies and the right to health, feminist and human rights-based approaches to poverty, access to COVID-19 Vaccines, the right to Development to name a few.
We also worked on influencing the language of resolutions concerning a broad range of rights interlinked with sexual rights. With other feminist and activist organisations, we were able to advocate for text promoting gender equality, bodily autonomy, the elimination of violence against women, preventing child, early and forced marriage, preventing maternal mortality and morbidity and addressing care and support from a human rights perspective. Like the previous year, 2023 saw many hostile amendments submitted on sexual and reproductive health and rights, girls’ rights to bodily autonomy, and the deletion of comprehensive sexuality education. These amendments were all fortunately defeated despite intensified opposition.
Last year, we hosted 3 side events during the Human Rights Council sessions: Health, Human Rights and Capitalism: Implications for the Human Rights Council (see recording), Autonomy v/s Protectionism: Critical Considerations for Human Rights Council on Sexuality and Gender (see recording) and Preventing Maternal Mortality: Autonomy, Abortion and Access: The Role of the Human Rights System (see recording).
To coincide with International Safe Abortion Day, the Sexual Rights Initiative, in collaboration with many other civil society organisations, launched again a call in 2023 for a Joint Civil Society Statement on Abortion.
The statement focused on the impact of de-prioritising and defunding public health systems and universal healthcare on SRHR and the need to uphold the right to safe and legal abortion. This initiative builds on our previous joint statements on abortion to the Council these past 5 years and was signed this year by 363 organisations and 335 individuals.
Special Procedures: Focus on Unilateral Coercive Measures, Capitalism, Development & Poverty
In 2023, we focused on responding to calls for inputs made by the Special Rapporteur on unilateral coercive measures, the Independent Expert on foreign debt, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Development and the Special Rapporteurs on Poverty and Housing:
- Our submission to the SR on Unilateral Coercive Measures was sent to inform the report on sanctions and the right to health. The submission examines unilateral sanctions as forms of economic and racial injustice and imperial domination, and a violation of the right to development. The submission calls for a class analysis of the poverty and other violations resulting from economic sanctions, and for an intersectional and comprehensive approach to the impact of sanctions on the right to health, including health determinants, health systems, non-discrimination, and maximum available resources. Finally, it looks at maternal mortality as an example of the ways in which sexual rights and bodily autonomy are severely impacted by sanctions. At HRC 54, SRI made a statement during the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur. The Special Rapporteur’s report on this topic was also presented at HRC 54.
- We made a joint submission with AWID and IWRAW AP to the Independent Expert on foreign debt for her report on multiple crises, fiscal systems and human rights. The submission aims to address the current situation as a crisis of neo-liberal capitalism, white supremacy, colonialism and patriarchy, and calls for an intersectional approach to these crises, their causes and their human rights impacts. It encourages the Independent Expert to continue engaging with feminist critiques of debt, and to engage with debt justice within a broader frame of economic, racial, gender and climate justice, as well as their redistributive components. The Independent Expert’s report on this topic was presented to the 78th session of the General Assembly.
- We also made a submission to inform the new Special Rapporteur on the Right to Development’s priorities for his mandate. The submission recommends adopting an intersectional approach to the right to development by engaging with gender, racial and economic justice, among others. The submission also suggests possible topics for thematic reports, including gender perspectives on the right to development, degrowth and just transition, and the rights to development and self-determination in contexts of (neo-)colonialism, imperialism, occupation, and indebtedness. SRI and IWRAW made a joint statement during the interactive dialogue with the SR at HRC 54. The vision-setting report of the Special Rapporteur was presented at the same session of the HRC.
- Finally, we were part of a joint submission to the SRs on Poverty and Housing on ‘protectionist’ criminal laws and their impact on homelessness and poverty, along with GAATW, IDPC, IWRAW AP and WHRIN, responding to the call for inputs for a joint report on decriminalisation of homelessness and extreme poverty. The submission provides a conceptual background and evidence for how ‘protectionist’ criminal laws - particularly in the fields of sex work and drug use - contribute to these trends and makes a series of recommendations. In particular, it urges the Special Rapporteurs to go beyond the decriminalisation of life-sustaining activities and to join a growing number of human rights bodies in calling for the decriminalisation of all activities relating to sex work and drug use.
UPR: 12 Shadow Reports: 10 Countries
Last year, we collaborated with activists and organisations to submit shadow reports on a range of sexual rights issues to the Universal Periodic Review 44th, 45th and 46th sessions for Bangladesh, Canada, Azerbaijan, Colombia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Cambodia, North Macedonia, Uruguay and Chile.
Treaty Monitoring Bodies: Racial Discrimination & Health
In 2023, we continued our advocacy around our submission to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to inform the elaboration of General Recommendation no 37 on racial discrimination and the right to health in collaboration with the National Council of Women Leaders (NCWL), the Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network (DHRDNet), the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN), AWID, Her Rights Initiative (HRI) and Alisa Lombard.
Collective advocacy by civil society groups contributed to a dedicated section on the first draft of the General Recommendation on intersectionality. The draft also recognises that some forms of racial discrimination, such as coerced or forced sterilisation, may be specifically directed towards women due to their gender. It also recognises that Indigenous women, women of African descent, Roma women and women belonging to other ethnic groups and castes have been disproportionately targeted in policies related to population control or control of infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS.
Up next in 2024!
The Human Rights Council will continue its work throughout the year. SRI will continue coordinating and supporting advocacy efforts, including the #EmptyChairs Campaign, to defend and expand spaces within the UN system for feminist advocacy. This campaign critically engages with the impact of 'efficiency measures' and the geopolitical context on civil society participation and influence. Activities will encompass hosting dialogues, webinars, and various creative advocacy forms to share intersectional feminist analysis and recommendations. The Summit of Future, scheduled for September 2024, will be a crucial opportunity for advancing feminist analysis and recommendations.
In 2024, SRI will continue its work of advancing sexual rights in the UN human rights system. The 55th session of the Council will be held from February 26 to April 5 2024.
This year, SRI will hold another conversation series focusing on sexuality and gender. While these issues have been at the core of SRI’s thematic foci, there is an urgent need to reframe how we approach them. Sexuality and gender have become, arguably, some of the most polarising areas of work in the international human rights system. Sexuality is frequently collapsed and conflated with sexual orientation, and gender has been collapsed and reduced to gender identity. There is an urgent need to widen both concepts so that they accurately reflect the diverse reality of human sexuality and gender. This is particularly crucial when the attempts to roll back the gains made in both these areas are gaining momentum. While we reflect and reimagine our work on sexuality and gender, we will continue to build on the gains made and defend these using the tried and tested methods.
Looking for other ways to engage in the human rights system? See our post on opportunities for feminist engagement from February to April 2024.
Watch this space for our upcoming analysis and round-ups on advocacy for sexual rights at the UN!