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Why Do Migrants’ SRHRs Matter? Why Don’t They?

FRIDAY FILE – Talks at the 46thUN Commission on Population and Development (CPD), under the theme New trends in migration: demographic aspects, saw rights-based groups confronting the very narrow views of migration held by conservative groups and affirming the role that sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHRs) play in the lives of migrants, particularly women and girls.

By Saira Zuberi

The theme of this year’s CPD inspired many member states of the Commission to send demographics experts to the convening. This, combined with the misinformation spread by anti-choice and conservative CSOs, and the presence of delegations influenced by their rhetoric or those not well informed of the issues, created a challenging context for the rights-based groups who attended.

The simplistic blog post, Why is the West so obsessed with sex? Don’t let sexual and reproductive rights activists hijack the CPD document by pushing aside the real needs of migrants! … closes with this telling quote: “Once again the sexual agenda of the first world is trumping the NEEDS of the third world… My mother tells me that not even once were her sexual and reproductive health or sexual and reproductive rights a concern.’ -- an immigrant to the US”. This excerpt encapsulates the way that SRHRs were dismissed by and disassociated from human rights more broadly by various anti-rights forces active at the 46th CPD in New York in April.

Why SRHRs matter

Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHRs) - including comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) and rights related to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) - were dismissed, devalued or misrepresented by many delegates, and even the Chair of the 46thCPD himself, who often referred to SRHRs as a distraction and a nuisancethat threatened the possibility of building consensus. This, however, was the very reason rights-based activists pushed on the subject - since the right to health as an aspect of human rights carries no serious controversy on its own.

To use a quote from one immigrant to the US who felt SRHRs were not a question for her mother as evidence that migrants do not require sexual and reproductive health, rights and services is simplistic and disingenuous at best. Consider that women migrate for various reasons and in various ways. In the context of forced migration, refugee crises, or trafficking, for instance, women and girls are more vulnerable to the violation of their sexual rights and bodily integrity at the hands of smugglers, corrupt officials or opportunists and in the precarious circumstances of living in refugee camps. The risks are also high for those migrating as domestic workers, as dependency on employers, lack of status and isolation can leave women and girls extremely vulnerable to sexual coercion and violence. Even in situations that are regulated and that afford migrants some status and protections, a newcomer to a new environment may face language and cultural barriers that create greater vulnerability. In these and many other situations, a woman or girl or an LGBTQI person does not lose the need for or right to sexual and reproductive health. In fact, such needs may actually be heightened, hence the imperative to protect and promote those rights.

Simplistic Tweets and blogs from Religious Right groups saying that pro-choice advocates expect migrants “to eat birth control pills” or believe that condoms and abortion rights will solve the world’s problems are dismissive and insulting, particularly to migrants, and in particular to women and girls whose sexual rights and bodily integrity are at great risk. The risks and vulnerabilities in the process of migration or settlement come in addition to the ongoing day-to-day sexual health needs that do not disappear if one migrates. The issue is not that migrants do not need food, shelter, healthcare and security, but that their health and security should include SRHRs.

Arguments and tactics used by religious conservative groups

Yet in spite of the clear connections, efforts by anti-rights forces to exclude SRHR were widespread. Successful lobbying by well-resourced conservative CSOs have resulted in building strong relationships with delegations and leaders with whom they’ve found common cause. Spreading misinformation and false arguments, increasingly by the use of social media, a manipulation of rights language and the insertion of clauses to water down agreed upon commitments and language are some of the major tactics used in these spaces.

For instance, religious and social conservatives often argue that CSE is either code for SOGI rights, or that it is merely a way to encourage promiscuity among young children. This old myth was used once again during the CPD, via such groups as Family Watch International (FWI), who distributed targeted misinformation based on manipulated facts and distorted data, for example, through a report on CSE which trivializes efforts to ensure youth are adequately equipped and informed about their bodies and their rights, as mere “sexualization of young children”. Tragically the lobbying against providing such empowering education contributed to the loss of agreed-upon language on CSE in the final text of the CPD46 resolution. And despite the efforts of rights advocates and sympathetic delegates from blocs such as the EU and states such as Uruguay, South Africa and others to include explicit mention of the specific vulnerabilities of LGBTQI migrants both in home and host countries, these also failed because of concerted conservative lobbying.

Furthermore, the representation of rights-based advocacy as “obsessed” with sexual rights discounts the very clear commitment that these groups had to other key rights issues, such as the concerted push for tying the general right to health to actual healthcare services, regardless of status. Though a matter of great controversy and fierce debate between many migrant-sending and -receiving states, this effort resulted in language - Operational Paragraph 4 (OP4) - calling upon States to promote and protect “the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all migrants regardless of migration status…” in the final Resolution text.

Familiar arguments used to spread misinformation about abortion were repeated once again, for example the Endeavour Forum representative’s oral statement reiterated the false notion that there is no such thing as safe abortion, using discredited research and biased reasoning as a basis to argue that even legal abortion damages women’s mental and reproductive health. Extending from this argument were the accusations hurled at sexual health and rights groups that they profit from the abortion industry and target migrants to make money. Efforts to expand SRHRs were touted as no more than “imperialism”, with the charge that a focus on the SRHR rights and needs of women in Africa and Latin America and of migrant populations is in fact a “genocide against poor people”, as though the rates of unsafe abortion and risks related to unmet sexual health needs are not an urgent issue for countless people across the Global South. And tweets such as one stating that rights advocates inserted “No mention of services/healthcare improvements 4 pregnant women & her baby-Focus is on the elimination of conceived child”, added to the misinformation being distributed.

Despite these efforts at dissemblance and distraction, the final Resolution did reaffirm the ICPD Programme of Action, as well as specific reference to safe abortion and emergency contraception where permitted by law, particularly for migrants who are survivors of sexual violence. Also reaffirmed was the right to health without qualifications (i.e., regardless of migration status); and the right to health was broken down to include information and education, non-discrimination, and access to services that would safeguard the sexual and reproductive rights of migrants, particularly those most vulnerable to violations (women, girls and LGBTQI people).

Unfortunately, the gains made and ground held with respect to SRHRs for migrants were also undermined by the inclusion of a state sovereignty paragraph reiterating - “the right of each country to implement the recommendations of the Programme of Action or other proposals in the present resolution, consistent with national laws and development priorities, with full respect for the various religious and ethical values and cultural backgrounds of its people, and in conformity with universally recognized international human rights.” This clause in particular is often used by anti-rights forces to play with semantics against the indivisible and holistic nature of human rights by arguing that abortion or sexual orientation are not universally (read, not literally) recognized in the corpus of international human rights law.

Conservative forces increasingly charge rights advocates with imperialism or genocide for simply attempting to promote the human rights of all individuals, no matter where or who they are. They argue that their religious freedom or freedom of conscience is denied by the recognition of certain rights for others. It is incumbent on rights advocates to continue to challenge and expose the misinformation and manipulated data that fundamentalist arguments are founded upon, and to keep advocating for governments to abide by and extend the protections and promotion of human rights covered by international law and policy. We need to continue to insist and reaffirm that SRHR are an integral part of human rights and the right to health, and that all states have an obligation to protect, promote and fulfill these rights.