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Women's Reproductive Rights Advanced at Conference

by Gabriel Eckstein

"The challenge facing activists now is to carry forward the achievements of the Cairo Conference [on Population and Development] and to expand the ground gained at upcoming world conferences, in particular at the Fourth World Conference on Women [in Beijing in 1995]," said Donna Sullivan, Director of the Women in the Law Project of the International Human Rights Law Group. Sullivan spoke at the Conference on the International Protection of Reproductive Rights held at The American University on November 10-11, 1994. The Conference, hosted by the Law Group and the Women & International Law Program (W&ILP) at the Washington College of Law, brought together women and men from Europe, Africa, the Americas, the Middle East, and South Asia to evaluate the achievements of the Cairo Conference, with respect to women's reproductive health, and explore mechanisms by which international law could be used to advance women's reproductive rights.

"Women's rights to health and reproductive choice are critical to their full participation in society," asserted Lauren Gilbert, Director of W&ILP. Gilbert's sentiment underscored the principal theme of the Conference -- women not only have the right to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing, and timing of their children, but also to obtain the information and means to do so. States therefore have a duty to dismantle obstacles to the free flow of information regarding reproductive health issues, and to ensure that individual decision-making concerning reproduction is free from discrimination, coercion, and violence.

Women must first be respected as "human beings with human rights," insisted Cecilia Medina-Quiroga, Professor of International Human Rights Law at the University Diego Portales and the University of Chile. Medina-Quiroga noted that women's human rights are marginalized and violated throughout the world, while Berta Hernández, Professor of Law at St. John's University School of Law, pointed out that "the UN classifies women as the largest excluded group in the world." Although the rate of growth of global population is of alarming proportion, "that's no justification for abusive measures" against women, agreed Rebecca Cook, Director of the International Human Rights Programme at the University of Toronto, and Conference keynote speaker. Cook and other participants also stresses the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to promoting women's health and human reproductive rights.

Despite past subordination of women's rights and concerns in issues of population and development, Conference speakers generally concurred that since the UN World Human Rights Conference held in Vienna in 1993, where women's organizations surprised many with their level of preparation and vigor, women's rights have become more widely debated and addressed in international law. Moreover, they noted that the Cairo Conference furthered the goal of women's rights by building on the concept of the empowerment of women.

Conference panel themes included: Reproduction, Rights and Reality: How Facts and Law Can Work For Women; The Utility and Limits of Rights-Based Approaches; The Right To Health; The Impact of Reproductive Subordination on Women's Health; Civil and Political Rights and the Right to Non-Discrimination; and Religious and Cultural Rights. The proceedings of the Conference will be published in The American University Law Review in March 1995.

© Copyright 1994 The Human Rights Brief

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