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A look at the world through an SRHR lens

Everyone should be allowed to decide over their own body, without fear of stigmatisation or prosecution. Sexual and reproductive rights are human rights.


I grew up under a table in different meeting rooms, following my mother in her work in The Women’s Front in Norway. At a very early age, I learnt to be silent when grown up women talked.Two issues they discussed:

  1. Women’s right to make decisions concerning her own body and pregnancy. Access to abortions.
  2. The right of every woman to have the same opportunities as men in the society, to education and to work. The right to free Kindergartens.

Women’s rights speak to my heart, obviously due to my upbringing, but let me tell you why. Yesterday I arrived from Malawi.

In Malawi 635 women out of a 100 000 births dies. That’s 100 times higher than in my home country Norway. 9% marry before they are 15, 50 % marry before they’re18. I met with very young mothers and was shown a girl of 16 mother to three.

They told me they want their children to have the education they them selves never had, because they were mothers instead of pupils and students. Having met these women it makes me angry that conservative religious forces work against the sexual and reproductive rights of women.

Fortunately there are plenty of women, like the President Joyce Banda and many others who are lifting this issue to the top of the political agenda! Their message is clear:

It is our obligation to fight alongside these girls and women so they have their right to decide.

You are an invaluable partner for us in this fight! Not only do you provide sexual and reproductive health services to millions of people, most of whom are from the most vulnerable and marginalised groups of society, you also provide a unique insight situation on the ground through your member associations in 172 countries, thousands of staff and millions of volunteers. Your presence and your voice are crucial for creating and implementing good policies and strategies. Through your advocacy efforts you are at the forefront of the current mobilisation of efforts to protect sexual and reproductive rights. You are the largest sexual and reproductive health and rights organisation in the world in terms of membership. By bringing new evidence and new methods to the global table, you are shaping how we think and talk about sexual and reproductive health and rights. Vision 2020, which is currently under development, shows how you are preparing for the future and ensuring that civil society is included in the global debate on the post-2015 agenda. I support your aim of keeping sexual rights and reproductive rights at the core of the rapidly changing development agenda – I will support you all the way.

Like gender equality, young people’s rights, participation and needs are particular priorities for Norway. Like women, young people have significant unmet needs for sexual and reproductive health services. And their rights are under constant pressure in many parts of the world. We know that pregnancy-related complications are the number one cause of death among girls between 15 and 19 in low- and middle-income countries. We know that almost half (42 %) of new HIV infections among young people occur in the 15–24 age group. We also know that providing access to youth-friendly health services and sexual education and reducing early marriage and childbirth are key factors for better sexual and reproductive health. And if we are to make any progress in reaching young people, their points of view must be heard. Young people are not only the leaders of tomorrow; they have the power to change the world today.

IPPF has played an invaluable role in bringing young people’s voices forward. This September, 40 young leaders from different countries, fields and organisations gathered for an IPPF conference in Oslo to explore how they could learn from each other and work together to promote sexual and reproductive health and rights. Input from the conference plays directly into our thinking about how to achieve our goals in this area. Not least, the participants urged us not to forget the links between sexual and reproductive health and rights and other broad societal problems, such as corruption, lack of gender equality, poverty and the right to education.

Promoting sexual and reproductive health and rights for all is a question of ending unnecessary immoral suffering. 273 000 women die annually due to complications related to pregnancy, and as much as 35000 (13 %) of these deaths are related to unsafe abortions.

35 000 die from unsafe abortions.

At least a third of all pregnancy-related deaths could be avoided if these women and girls only had access to family planning and safe abortions. Nearly all of health problems and deaths related to sexual and reproductive health happens to poor people in the poorest parts of the world.

Everyone should be able to decide freely matters regarding his or her own body and sexuality. This is often not the norm, especially for adolescent girls and young women. In many parts of the world, we take these rights for granted. In other parts, these rights are but a distant dream. This highlights the world’s different realities and different cultural contexts. But the universal human rights apply equally to all states and to all individual.

Norway is and will remain a staunch supporter of everyone’s right to make decisions over their own body. That being said, I acknowledge that some people feel these issues are important moral issues against their beliefs.

Some of them seem to want mold the world into what they think is Ideal – I am living in the real world – and in the real world – real people have sex and real people are dying. To me, people dying is a moral offense.

Abortion is perhaps the most contentious issue. I don’t have any friends that considers abortion to be an ideal solution. But family planning alone cannot prevent all unwanted pregnancies (particular if you oppose contraception), and unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortion are very dangerous for women.

Moreover, research tells us that strict abortion laws do nothing to reduce the number of abortions. The provision of safe abortions and post-abortion care are important not because we want to promote abortion, but because we want to avoid the damage and deaths that would otherwise occur. In other words, this is not just a moral question for the socially conservative; it is an important question for us as well.

At the national level, Norway experienced many of the same discussions and objections when abortion was legalised in 1979. It was the mobilisation and advocacy of strong women’s rights activists that led to political change. And as legislation softened and safe abortion services were made widely available, complemented by high quality and readily available family planning, the abortion figures decreased dramatically. This not only holds true for Norway, it is a global trend.

Abortion is not the only controversial issue in this field. I am a firm believer in sexual education, especially for young people. In many countries youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services are not widely available, even where there is a demand for contraceptives and high levels of unwanted pregnancies among adolescent and young women. Sexual education in schools is important. Communities and parents must also be educated, in order to reduce cultural barriers and misbeliefs about young people’s contraceptive use and improve knowledge of sexual and reproductive health and rights. Everyone, young people included, should be met without judgment or demands for parental or spousal consent by providers of sexual health and rights services. Teenage pregnancies are rare in Norway. There are virtually no pregnancies among girls who are still at school. Teenage girls and boys who use family planning methods are regarded as responsible persons. This is not a coincidence. It is the result of policies and planning based on scientific research and input from all stakeholders, including young people themselves.

Who hasn’t felt the awkwardness of the situation when the teacher opens the text-book on sex.

In confirmation preparations in Norway both the Protestants and Humanist have group-discussions on sex and love.

The success of our policies and programmes, as well as the positive impact this has had on other societal issues such as gender equality, encourage us to engage globally. Norway fully supports the Family Planning 2020 initiative, which was launched in London this summer, with more than 100 mn US$ a year. Norway is a heavy supporter of the UN Commission on Life-Saving Commodities for Women and Children.

These initiatives will increase access to family planning, maternal health services and lifesaving medicines. I also welcome IPPF’s bold plans to double its services by 2015.

However, ensuring availability is not the only task ahead. We must also work together to ensure accessibility and acceptability. This means that we most promote sexual and reproductive rights. Gay or straight, people should be allowed to love and marry whoever they choose. And have sex before they marry, if they marry at all. Everyone should be allowed to decide over their own body, without fear of stigmatisation or prosecution. Sexual and reproductive rights are human rights.

There are people who do not agree – who argue against sexual and reproductive rights on the basis of culture or religion. Over the last couple of years we have seen a well-organised front of socially reactionary actors who are systematically fighting every inch of progress we have achieved over the last four decades. This front is not only visible in the international arena, but also in national political processes. These actors maintain that sexual rights are Western concepts, designed to undermine traditional values in the Global South. Neo-colonialism, they call it. This is ironic, as the conservative front is largely financed by actors from the US and southern Europe. IPPF has an important role to play at country level to stem this reactionary tide. Clear and evidence-based information about the real links between health, reproductive rights, reproductive health services and sustainable development will hopefully win over dogmatic rhetoric.

When the right-wing in the US enters into a mafia-like partnership with the Vatican and Iran – then you know they are up to no good.

We must stand shoulder-to-shoulder with courageous men and women fighting for their fundamental human right – control of their own body. We must maintain the powerful momentum behind historic victories in the international arena, such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Cairo Programme of Action, the Beijing Platform and the Millennium Development Goals. We must protect our normative framework in upcoming reviews and negotiations.

The international community must move forwards towards implementation, not back towards the Dark Ages.

The 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, which will be held in New York in March next year, will be important in this context. The main theme is violence against women, which is highly relevant for the sexual and reproductive health and rights field. Already clashing on the agenda.

But as we work together internationally, we must not forget what the normative framework is there to achieve. All the goals, platforms and action plans are worthless if they are not used to make a tangible difference for the people who have to live with the consequences of a lack of services and rights.

I want to take this opportunity to share with you an idea for a joint global Young people's Campaign. The objective is to mobilize and empower individual young sexual rights advocates. A web-based educational Quiz will be launched, building on the great success we have had from a similar but national campaign on development challenges. More than 80 000 young people in Norway participated in Weekly Quiz Questions this fall. The winner will receive an award.

I am hopeful for the future. Over the last year we have seen powerful actors and countries step up to promote family planning. Norway is proud to be a part of this effort. Norway is and will remain an unyielding supporter of sexual and reproductive health and rights, and will continue to work together with IPPF and other progressives to ensure that sexual and reproductive rights are attainable for all.

The right to decide for women is not separate from the other empowerment of women. The access to contraception, education and safe maternal services needs economic support.

And while the "right of women" touches my heart, it doesn’t touch the brain of the financial ministers. And we need them aboard to mobilize commitment. Let me tell you the story of Norway.

A hundred years ago Norway was among Europe’s poorest nations. Our transition to becoming a rich country has several explanations, fair income distribution is important, development of hydropower likewise, but key is the mobilisation of all our people particular through the empowerment and participation of women.

Today, three out of four women are employed in the labour market in Norway, which is one of the highest rates in the world. Since the early 1970s when I was born, women have doubled the pool of women working for wages. They have created new jobs and generated tax revenue, enabling us to continue to invest in welfare and opportunities for all.

Many know that we are rich because of oil. But listen. If women in Norway had participated as little as the average in the developed countries, we would lose a fortune equal to the value of our oil fund and all the oil in the ground.

We achieved this by policies that let women decide, policies to give women equal opportunities, to safe abortions, to education, to child care and to work.

If you do not have oil - your fortune lies in family planning, education and equal opportunities for women. If you do have oil or gold and platinum. Well that’s not a good excuse for running stupid policies.

My mother worked for the rights and opportunities of women in Norway.

From her the message to you:

  • Listen to your heart and use your brain.
  • Let women have the right to decide.

And with these words – congratulate you on your anniversary – may you live long as necessary and prosper!



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