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The future as envisioned by WHO for the post-2015 agenda: a serious regression from its long-standing commitments on sexual and reproductive health and rights

Photo of several African women wearing colourful clothing carrying babies on their backs.

Marge Berer

Editor, Reproductive Health Matters

What has gone wrong at WHO? The Lancet’s Offline report (31 May)  of what they call “WHO’s definitive statement about the future it envisions for the post-2015 era of sustainable development” signals a serious regression by WHO away from championing its own policies of many years, and makes for a distressing read. Among the policies WHO should be promoting for the post-2015 agenda setting must surely be:

i) the right to the highest attainable standard of health, as one of the fundamental rights of every human being, a goal which has underpinned WHO’s work since it was founded in 1948,

ii) universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, and

iii) strengthening of health systems, taking into account the social and economic determinants of health.

“Universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights” is in line with WHO’s 2004
Reproductive Health Strategy, approved by the 57th World Health Assembly  and reflects more than four decades of work by the Special Programme of Research, Development and Research Training in Human Reproduction (HRP), based at WHO, and most recently a resolution at the 67th World Health Assembly.

The most important international bodies and leaders currently support the inclusion of universal access to sexual and reproductive health as a crucial goal in its own right under the overarching health goal in the post-2015 agenda, and add reproductive rights to this also under gender equality. The Stockholm Statement of Commitment agreed by 260 Parliamentarians from 134 countries at the Sixth IPCI/ICPD Conference in April 2014 states that access to sexual and reproductive health and rights is an ‘indispensable component’ of the post-2015 development framework. On July 4th a letter from Parliamentarians around the world addressed to Dr Margaret Chan, Director General of the WHO, expressed their concern about the omission of reproductive health and ‘strongly’ support for the Stockholm statement.

Moreover, in consultation after consultation, numerous national and international civil society organisations have called for the inclusion of reproductive and sexual health and rights as an integrated whole as well.

It is a serious mistake on WHO’s part to try to bury this issue under Universal Health Coverage, where it will get lost in a sea of competing finance-oriented interests. To do so discounts the consistent support for these goals by the World Health Assembly as well as the work of countless WHO staff and expert advisors.

There are other indications of a systematic pushback and regression away from work on sexual and reproductive health and rights at WHO as well. It is not reflected as a priority in the 12th WHO Global Programme of Work, nor in the just published Health for the World’s Adolescents, an unprecedented omission. This cannot be taken lightly.

Friends of WHO must do everything they can to ensure WHO assumes its leadership role on these issues again and does not fall back on its longstanding commitments.

This article was originally published in RHM Blog: The Blog for Reproductive Health Matters on July 08, 2014.

Cover image: Wikimedia Creative Commons