In all parts of the world, women suffer discrimination and abuse because of their reproductive capacity. Community members, spouses, parents, and health professionals use discrimination, violence, and abuse as means to limit women’s sexual autonomy and reproductive choices. Some of these abuses are even mandated by law. They violate internationally recognized human rights, including women’s rights to life, health, nondiscrimination, bodily integrity, privacy, liberty, religious freedom, and freedom from torture.
Discrimination based on women’s reproductive capacity often intersects with other forms of discrimination, such as for example discrimination based on ethnicity or race. In South Africa, for example, farm owners deny black women farm workers maternity benefits and other legal rights.
Frequently, women are treated as incapable of making responsible decisions about their health and lives, especially when it comes to reproductive matters. In the Dominican Republic , Human Rights Watch found that pregnant women are given inadequate information prior to HIV testing, preventing them from giving their informed consent to the testing. Some women are pressured into being sterilized. In Argentina, on the other hand, women are routinely denied access to voluntary sterilization in the public health system, or are only allowed the procedure when their husbands have given express authorization.
All over the world, women and girls suffer adverse health, social, and economic consequences of unplanned and unwanted pregnancies because family planning and safe and legal abortion services are criminalized or made practically inaccessible. Every year, twenty million women undergo an abortion in illegal and mostly unsafe circumstances, resulting in as many as 78,000 deaths, the vast majority of which are preventable. In Argentina, the consequences of illegal and unsafe abortion have been the leading cause of maternal mortality for decades, causing one third of these deaths directly.
Across the world, family and community members pressure women to undergo mutilating, physically inhibiting, and often painful bodily alterations such as female circumcision or female genital mutilation. Human Rights Watch has documented the dire consequences of other harmful traditional practices, such as “dry sex” in Zambia, and “ritual cleansing” or “widow inheritance” in Kenya.
These practices are closely related to issues of sexual autonomy, and the rights of all women to decide on the number and spacing of their children. Cultural practices, as well as limited access to family planning and education, are used to control and limit women’s sexual autonomy and restrict female sexual activity to that directly related to procreation. In the United States, state-sponsored sex education programs that focus on “abstinence only” until marriage teach adolescents that condoms do not work, , encouraging those adolescents who engage in sex to do so unprotected. Through the United States’ President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) such programs are now being exported to countries with high HIV rates, in particular among women, such as Uganda.