International Human Rights Day: Celebrating Defenders of Women’s Rights


This post is published as part of our series in recognition of International Human Rights Day 2010 on Friday, December 10th.

This year, International Human Rights Day (10 December) has as its theme: “human rights defenders who act to end discrimination.” As the UN Human Rights Office explains:

Human rights defenders speak out against abuse and violations including discrimination, exclusion, oppression and violence.  They advocate justice and seek to protect the victims of human rights violations. They demand accountability for perpetrators and transparency in government action.

Among the most visible human rights defenders, both internationally and nationally, are women living with HIV and people who advocate for sexual and reproductive rights in the context of HIV/AIDS. Among some of their key achievements over the past 20 years or so: 

Establishment of advocacy groups of and for women living with and affected by HIV.

Beginning in 1992, with the formation of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS at the Amsterdam AIDS Conference, numerous groups of women living with HIV and groups uniting HIV-positive and other women have worked at the regional, national and local levels to draw attention to their sexual and reproductive health needs and rights. They include groups such as the Cambodian Community of Women living with HIV/AIDS, the Mama’s Clubs in Uganda, the Blueprint Coalition on Women, Girls, and HIV in Canada, the Women and AIDS Network in Germany,   Mexicanas Positivas Frente a la VIDA  and the international ATHENA and Women Arise! Networks.

These groups are doing research; training women in communication, educational and advocacy skills; participating in guidance and decision-making bodies (such as International AIDS Conference committees and advisory groups to bodies such as UNAIDS) and helping shape the agenda of areas that need to be prioritized to meet women’s and girls’ needs.

Advocacy regarding prevention methods that are under women’s control.

Although most women around the world are still dependent on the cooperation of others to prevent their own infection with HIV or STIs, some gains are slowly being made. Female condoms are more vigorously promoted and made available and continued advocacy has contributed to the development of a promising new microbicide. Hopefully, the same type of advocacy will make the HPV vaccine, VIA (visual inspection with acetic acid) screening for cervical cancer, cryotherapy for cervical abnormalities, Pap smears and mammograms more available for women and girls affected by HIV as well.

Violations of the reproductive rights of women living with HIV are being addressed in legal and human rights arenas.

Work in this area has thus far centered to a large degree on actions to address coercive sterilization of women living with HIV. Spearheaded by the Namibian Women’s Health Network (NWHN) through a court case introduced in 2009, a case is also being pursued in Chile and research on the issue is taking place in South Africa. NWHN has also been a leader in the HIV/AIDS community in speaking out about denial of safe abortion care to women living with HIV, along with representatives of ICW Malawi and Ipas.

What is exciting about the work led by women’s groups in relation to HIV/AIDS is that it can easily extend to meet the needs of women who are HIV-negative or of unknown HIV status. All girls and women can benefit from greater availability of simpler and lower cost reproductive health technologies, as well as protection of their rights to comprehensive reproductive health care with fully informed consent.

This is appealing since women’s groups doing advocacy in other areas of sexual and reproductive health are fewer in number and not as influential (aside from groups working on breast cancer, perhaps). The numbers of groups working on health rights for indigenous and disabled women are growing but still small. The numbers of groups willing to take on issues of reproductive choice appear restricted by fears of stigmatization and perhaps even violence from oppositional conservative groups. A bright note on the latter front is the willingness of younger women – and men – to address reproductive rights more broadly, including groups such as Decidir in Mexico and the Youth Coalition internationally.

The UN High Commissioners Office on Human Rights will continue to focus on human rights defenders throughout 2011. It would be great if we could see more collaboration among the groups advocating for rights of women living with HIV, rights of indigenous and disabled women, and reproductive rights, including that contentious issue of safe abortion, at national and international events of significance during the upcoming year. And we should not forget to join forces to carry that advocacy forward in the human rights arena, such as the UN Treaty Monitoring Committees, the UN Special Procedures and the new UN working group on laws that discriminate against women!

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