New WHO report on sexual health, human rights and the law

June 25, 2015

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The World Health Organization recently published a report on the relationship between sexual health, human rights and the law. Drawing from a review of public health evidence and extensive research into human rights law at international, regional and national levels, the report shows how states in different parts of the world can and do support sexual health through legal and other mechanisms that are consistent with human rights standards and their own human rights obligations.

Blurb from the Executive Summary

Sexual health today is widely understood as a state of physical, emotional, mental and social wellbeing in relation to sexuality. It encompasses not only certain aspects of reproductive health – such as being able to control one’s fertility through access to contraception and abortion, and being free from sexually transmitted infections (STIs), sexual dysfunction and sequelae related to sexual violence or female genital mutilation – but also, the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. Indeed, it has become clear that human sexuality includes many different forms of behaviour and expression, and that the recognition of the diversity of sexual behaviour and expression contributes to people’s overall sense of well-being and health.

Developments over the past three decades, particularly in the wake of the HIV pandemic, have brought an understanding that discrimination and inequality also play a key role in whether or not people can attain and maintain sexual health. For example, those who are perceived as having socially unacceptable sexual practices or characteristics, such as being HIV-positive, being an unmarried sexually active adolescent, a sex worker, a migrant, a transgender or intersex person, or engaging in same-sex sexual behaviour, suffer both marginalization and stigma, which take a huge toll on people’s health.

Those who are deprived of, or unable to access, information and services related to sexuality and sexual health, are also vulnerable to sexual ill health. Indeed, the ability of individuals to achieve sexual health and well-being depends on their access to comprehensive information about sexuality, knowledge about the risks they face, vulnerability to the adverse consequences of sexual activity, access to good quality sexual health care, and access to an environment that affirms and promotes sexual health.

As well as being detrimental to their sexual health, discrimination and inequalities may also constitute a violation of human rights. The achievement of the highest attainable standard of sexual health is therefore closely linked to the extent to which people’s human rights – such as the rights to non-discrimination, to privacy and confidentiality, to be free from violence and coercion, as well as the rights to education, information and access to health services – are respected, protected and fulfilled. In the past two decades, an important body of human rights standards pertaining to sexuality and sexual health has been developed.

This includes:

  • interpretations by United Nations human rights treaty monitoring bodies of the content of human rights provisions;
  • international, regional and national court decisions;
  • international consensus documents;
  • and reports by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health, among others.

These standards are made operational through the enactment and implementation of laws, regulations and policies at the national level. Laws matter because they set the rules of society and can provide the framework for the implementation of sexual-health-related policies, programmes and services. They can provide human rights guarantees, but they may also create limitations. Either way, laws and regulations have an impact on the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of sexual health. Harmonizing laws with human rights standards can foster the promotion of sexual health across and within various populations, while the negative impact of laws that are in contradiction with human rights standards has been increasingly documented.

In this report, the WHO concludes that “States have obligations to bring their laws and regulations that affect sexual health into alignment with human rights laws and standards. Removing barriers in access to sexual health information and services, and putting in place laws and regulations that aim to support and promote sexual health, are actions that are also in line with the World Health Organization’s global reproductive health strategy adopted by the World Health Assembly in 2004.”

Sexual health, human rights and the law. World Health Organization, 2015 – Download the report (PDF)