Advancing the Human Right to Health


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Hostility has been directed against, for example, the rights of women to have control over their own bodies and in their own lives. While preventable maternal and infant mortality and HIV transmission have decreased, these gains are tenuous so long as governments fail to embrace a comprehensive agenda for sexual and reproductive health and rights. In many places, stigma and shame still dominate what should be dignifying access to essential services and commodities.

Defending the SUS depends on advancing health reform

Yet, sexual and reproductive health and rights are firmly grounded in international human rights standards. These well-recognized norms protect our right to decide whether and when to be sexually active, to live and express our own sexuality, and to determine whether and when to have children. This vision takes an integrated approach, affirming that the achievement of sexual and reproductive health relies on the realization of sexual and reproductive rights. That is a manageable investment. The urgency of this call is made gravely apparent by the data.

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Each year worldwide, 25 million unsafe abortions take place, while as many as million couples may be affected by infertility and nearly 2 million people become infected with HIV. And at some point in their lives, around 1 in 3 women are subjected to gender-based violence. These stark realities are often neglected in health policy development and program implementation, so the Guttmacher-Lancet Commission recommends an essential package of interventions to bridge unsustainable gaps in health services and programs. It also includes the less-commonly provided interventions necessary for a holistic approach to sexual and reproductive health and rights, such as care for sexually transmitted infections other than HIV; comprehensive sexuality education; safe abortion care; prevention, detection, and counselling for gender-based violence; prevention, detection, and treatment of infertility and cervical cancer; and counselling and care for sexual health and well-being.

It is also achievable and affordable. That is a manageable investment for most countries, especially since half of that amount is already spent to maintain current levels of care. Going the extra step would yield enormous returns. The most recent data shows that fully meeting the need for modern contraception in developing regions and ensuring that pregnant women and their newborns receive essential care, would result in an 80 percent decline in newborn deaths and a 73 percent decline in maternal deaths from levels.


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For these gains in rights-based service provision to be achieved, health systems require sustainable and predictable financing. Ministries of health and finance should make these essential sexual and reproductive health interventions a joint priority and ensure their inclusion in national health budgets. More inclusive progress can be achieved by taking certain steps. Upholding sexual and reproductive health and rights demands tackling underlying power structures that entrench discrimination, whether based on gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, health status, migration status or other identities.

Political decisions to oppose services required only by women, such as safe abortion services, or to deny adolescents certain information, such as comprehensive sexuality education, must be denounced.

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Human rights standards provide a framework of accountability for effective strategy prioritization, emphasizing the need for participatory and transparent policy discussions, as well as accountability for system failures. Trade-offs are inevitable, but respect for and protection of human rights are indispensable. Countries should work systematically toward guaranteeing in law, policy, and practice the essential package of sexual and reproductive health interventions for their entire population, specifically so that people and communities can receive those services without stigma, discrimination or financial hardship.

There are successes to defend but more inclusive progress to be achieved. We know what to do and how to do it, and we can be confident that doing so makes good social and economic sense. What will it take for leaders to act? Toggle navigation.

Advancing the Human Right to Health

Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world. Developed in the wake of World War II, the UDHR proclaimed the powerful idea that all individuals, by virtue of their humanity, are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

This groundbreaking commitment to social progress—to protect universal values of equality, justice, and human dignity—would come to be celebrated each year on International Human Rights Day. Celebrated on the December 10 th anniversary of the adoption of the UDHR, Human Rights Day is part of an enduring effort to place human rights at the forefront of the global conscience. This commemoration presents an opportunity not only to take stock of the progress the world has made in its efforts to realize health-related human rights, but also to reflect on the health and human rights challenges that lie ahead.

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Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…. To raise global awareness in support of human rights, the UN developed these anniversary celebrations for the UDHR to 1 recognize past UN accomplishments in promoting human rights, 2 publicize specific substantive rights of the UDHR, and 3 stimulate public policy discussions on human rights advancement.

Where these UN celebrations sought to advance human rights within the respective purview of UN specialized agencies, such celebrations would have particular relevance to the advancement of health-related human rights obligations through the World Health Organization WHO.

Through its engagement with human rights as a basis for the advancement of global health, WHO has long grappled with its responsibilities for the development and implementation of health-related human rights. WHO this year signed the Joint United Nations statement on ending discrimination in health care settings, committing UN entities to: support states to align national and international laws and standards; to empower health workers and users of health services to fulfill their roles and responsibilities and claim their rights; and foster accountability by declaring discrimination in health care settings unacceptable.

Developed through an expansive, bottom-up consultative process that focuses explicitly on reaching health equity and advancing gender equality and human rights, the Global Programme of Work builds on the groundbreaking Sustainable Development Goals SDGs , which, like human rights, acknowledge that health is indivisible from its social determinants.

The celebration of International Human Rights Day provides a reminder that human rights are universal and inalienable, and yet are all too often flouted in meeting health goals, raising an imperative to take stock of how far global actors have come in delivering on the right to health, health-related human rights, and rights-based approaches to health. Increasingly explicit statements of support for human rights in health augur well for the future of human rights in global health.

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Advancing the Human Right to Health Advancing the Human Right to Health
Advancing the Human Right to Health Advancing the Human Right to Health
Advancing the Human Right to Health Advancing the Human Right to Health

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