The EU can help protect women’s rights

Imagine how it must feel to be separated from your family, forced to flee your home and then find yourself living in a tent, among strangers, vulnerable to all forms of violence, including rape. Imagine giving birth in these unsafe and unhygienic circumstances, or caring for a newborn baby, or simply trying to keep yourself clean and healthy so that you can get on with the mammoth task of rebuilding your life, your home, your community.

11 July 2015 is World Population Day. This year the focus is on vulnerable populations in emergencies. The situations described above are a reality for a growing number of women, children and adolescents affected by humanitarian crises. They make up 75 to 80% of the estimated 65 million people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes by conflict or natural disasters. The UN Population Fund estimated that in Nepal, 126,000 pregnant women and girls were affected by the recent earthquake, and about 40,000 were estimated to be at increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence.

Sexual and reproductive health (SRH) is a basic human right, but when disaster strikes, services such as family planning are often neglected or ignored. In the aftermath of a crisis, women and girls face very particular sets of challenges, especially if they are pregnant, new mothers, or simply if they have their period. The risks associated with sexual violence also escalate when populations are being displaced, law and order have broken down or in conflict areas where rape is used as a weapon of war, with women often being forced to endure the added torture of carrying the child of their rapist in the absence of access to necessary medical care, including abortion.

For many women, girls and other vulnerable people, access to at least a minimum level of SRH services can ensure safety, dignity and health. NGOs and UN agencies are working with governments and other partners around the world to ensure that this is the case through the provision of the Minimum Initial Service Package (MISP), a set of priority SRH-related activities and services. These efforts are crucial for giving women and girls a choice.

It is encouraging that the EU appears to recognise this reality. On 26 May, EU ministers acknowledged that natural and manmade disaster situations disproportionately affect women and girls. They reiterated their longstanding support for people’s basic human right to make their own decisions about their sexuality and SRH – a commitment encompassing both the EU’s response to humanitarian crises and its broader development policy.

This is promising given that the world still has such a long way to go to meet women’s needs when it comes to reproductive health and family planning – in crisis situations or not. Globally, 225 million women are still not able to access an effective method of contraception to avoid or delay pregnancy, even though they want to. Increased political leadership and financial support from governments worldwide are thus critical. It is worth remembering that the groundbreaking 2012 Family Planning summit in London (FP2020) was timed to coincide with World Population Day, as part of an international effort to galvanise that leadership and support. Three years later, it is great to see the EU taking a strong progressive stance.

We have to make sure the European Parliament will stay in the lead of promoting sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) as a core feature of EU development policy. One key opportunity will be the new ‘Gender Action Plan’ (GAP), due to be adopted this autumn against the backdrop of the landmark UN summit in September that will finalise the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The GAP is the instrument that will define how the EU implements and finances its international commitments on gender equality and women’s empowerment in development and humanitarian aid. It is critical that it fully recognises sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). On World Population Day, we commit ourselves to continue working hard inside the Parliament and with the other EU institutions to make sure we improve worldwide access to SRHR.

This year on 11 July, as world leaders prepare to adopt the SDGs, EU ministers have given us reason to hope that they are serious about putting SRHR at the heart of the new global framework, and making 2015 the year we deliver on health, well-being and human rights for women and girls worldwide, including the poorest and most vulnerable.

Linda McAvan MEP (S&D) is chair of the European parliament committee on development. Heidi Hautala MEP (Greens/EFA) and Sophie in ‘t Veld MEP (ALDE) are co-chairs of the European parliament working group on reproductive health HIV/AIDS and development (EPWG).