Europe must advance sexual rights in 2021

14 February is commemorated as the European Day on Sexual Health. This day is in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “the right to sexual and reproductive health as ‘a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity’.”

In understanding the significance of this day, it is important to recognize surrounding discussions such as sexuality, and sexual and reproductive rights. Several definitions of key concepts are found on the WHO website here. Most importantly, sexual and reproductive health are interconnected and aligned with several human rights, including three out of the four core ones that are also seen as non-derogable under any circumstance. These include the right to life, the right to be free from torture and other inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, and the right to be free from slavery or servitude.

Sexuality and sexual health

In order to advance and achieve sexual rights effectively, related issues such as sexual violence, the concept of consent (see consent laws in Europe here), rape (and the various legislations around Europe), funds shifting from sexual health to COVID-19 and varied impacts of the pandemic on sexual reproductive health (SRH), abortion (discussions here as well), transgender rights on sexual health and self-identity, and many others need to be brought to the table and included in all deliberations.

Sexuality and sexual health are often seen through the lenses of biology and medicine only, while ignoring social and structural determinants of health; such as gender (including gender identity and sexual orientation), age, ableism, socio-economic status, rural or urban residence, literacy, religion and beliefs and other intersecting issues.

Therefore, crucial topics are often overlooked, like women’s physical and psychological autonomy or the right to gender self-determination (see Spain’s new proposals for transgender legislation and the EU’s own working paper). Tackling such topics takes head on the right of a life free of violence for all women and girls worldwide, a reality that every year seems as far away as ever.  According to UN Women, last year 243 million women and girls (age 15-49) suffered some form of physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner, a statistic that does not consider a wider incidence of gender based violence nor the vast amount of unreported cases. Women are stigmatized and discouraged from reporting sexual violence (gender data gap, especially when it comes to sexual and gender-based violence).

The International Planned Parenthood Federation Declaration on sexual rights (2008) is clear. Women with learning disabilities have the same human rights as all women. Those rights include the right not to be subjected to arbitrary interference with privacy which is essential to the exercise of sexual autonomy; the opportunity to have control and decide freely on matters related to sexuality; to choose their sexual partners; access to information about sexuality in an understandable language; to choose whether or not to marry, whether or not to found and plan a family.

Unfortunately, in many areas, both as a matter of law and custom, these rights are routinely breached. Women and men with learning disabilities may be denied information and actively discouraged from forming intimate and sexual relationships. Many women are sterilised or given long-acting contraceptives without due regard to their wishes or informed consent. Not only does this breach their human rights, by denying them the opportunity to learn both facts and skills needed to negotiate sexual relationships, but they are also made more vulnerable to sexual abuse. We must assert their rights and support them to challenge legal discrimination, access appropriate education, and person-centred contraceptive and fertility services.

The effects of the pandemic and deteriorating rights in Europe

COVID-19 has aggravated gender-based violence, for example in France there has been a 30% increase in calls and/or domestic violence reports since the pandemic started. The pandemic has also worsened other sexual health related issues. HIV funding declined because of the shift in financing and donations towards COVID-19 related research and facilities, widening the gap of funding for HIV/AIDS especially for low and middle-income countries. HIV treatment interruptions can cause more deaths, which also exposes the weakness of sexual health care. As Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS states:

”There is a risk that the hard-earned gains of the AIDS response will be sacrificed to the fight against COVID-19, but the right to health means that no one disease should be fought at the expense of the other.”

The enshrinement of sexual health rights in laws at the national and international level allows women to make informed decisions on their reproductive choices with full autonomy: decision-making is a self-empowerment tool itself. The near-total ban on abortion in Poland is an example of the inhumanity and the disintegration of human rights with regards to sexual health that can set the precedence for spreading feudal and conservative practices across Europe starting from the control of women’s bodies, to the LGBTQIA+ community through to society at large. There is no single person not affected by SRH.

On the other hand, we welcome initiatives such as the one promoted in Scotland, the first country ever where menstruation hygiene products are free, known as The Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland), and we encourage the European States to follow the example and start providing such items, for example, at learning facilities.

Reproductive education and rights is a necessity

Reproductive education and rights also lead the way for children and young people to learn about consent, their bodies, safe and healthy relationships, and at the same time, recognize abuse and harassment earlier on. Viewing sexual health through this perspective addresses the cycles of poverty, and violence that young people are subjected to because of the lack of sexual health related education and support.

It is also especially and tragically true when addressing sexual health for stigmatised and pathologised sections of society. Historic stigmatisation of the queer community, especially the transgender community, has driven underground the management of sexual health issues, with all the associated dangers that entails. Equal access to health care for transgender people is a fundamental human right that ensures the ability of trans people to effectively participate and fully integrate in society. There is a lack of recommendations or best practices for health professionals in the EU in general which makes access to health and sexual health provision not only difficult but also stigmatizing, dissuading transgender people in general from accessing generalised health care and especially trans-specific health care.

Access to necessary and vital sexual health care is dependent not only on the provision of free and accessible services but is also directly related to the level of discrimination and stigmatization that transgender people suffer in society in general. Social exclusion has deep impacts on mental, emotional, and physical health, affecting accessibility to health services and especially sexual health services and trans-specific health care.

Recent developments regarding Trans health care in Europe have been less than encouraging, especially when we see developments in Hungary where transgender rights are being actively undermined as part of a broader reactionary policy push. However, the continuing pathologisation of trans people, which mirrors the same path afforded homosexuality, for example, means a lot has still to be done because the path to equal access to sexual health care is through an end of all forms of discrimination.

There is much need for an intersectional holistic approach to sexual rights in order to achieve a just and equitable resolution for all

In the light of all topics mentioned, we call on states and duty bearers to uphold all human rights, including sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR); and on civil society organisations, especially on feminist, LGTBIQ+, youth grassroots movements, and societies, at last, to continue advocating for them.

DiEM25 has a Task Force on Feminism, Diversity and Disabilities, and is working alongside the thematic Gender DSC (Intersectional Feminism). A campaign against domestic violence will be planned, as well as continued and organised discussions and events about intersectional issues surrounding gender, race, class, abilities, neurodivergence, and the climate and environment.

Photo Source: AJ+ on Twitter

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