The EESC Fundamental Rights and Rule of Law Group held a public hearing on protecting women's sexual and reproductive health and rights. Participants in the debate called for free health services, access to contraception, more inclusive policies, and reproductive and sexual education. This debate was organised in collaboration with the EESC Equality Group as part of a series of EESC events following up on the European Parliament's Gender Equality Week initiative.
Recent developments have shown that women's sexual and reproductive rights are not irreversible. This has had disastrous results for some women who can become deprived of free and informed choice, in particular those who live in poverty and are marginalised for various reasons.
Maria Nikolopoulou, president of the EESC Equality Group, opened the public hearing:
The debate on the role of women is getting more heated. Some issues that we thought to be resolved are being questioned again and consolidated rights are being threatened. We cannot sit back and wallow in anger and frustration, we need to mobilise society to promote sexual and reproductive education.
Caroline Hickson, Regional Director for Europe of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), explained the root of this backlash against women's right:
There is a movement that rejects these values and wants to preserve the status quo of power and privilege detained by the patriarchal society. They deliberately twist terms like gender equality to drive their political projects, but their targets are much wider: it is an attack to democracy, equality, and the rule of law. Women's rights are the battleground where the battle against democracy and rule of law is being fought. The EU must stand up to protect these rights.
The greatest barriers to sexual and reproductive rights are gender discrimination and social norms, explained Birgit Van Hout, Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) EU Office. She called for increasing the number of women in leadership, supporting the defenders of women's human rights, advancing the Sustainable Development Goals, bridging the gap between law and practice, and mainstreaming women's rights in education.
Leah Hoctor, from the Center for Reproductive Rights, stressed the importance of leveraging public opinion as a clear driver of political will:
Public opinion in Europe is squarely in favour of Sexual health and reproductive rights. Social movements are critical to withstand political threats of regression and show those in leadership that it is time for change.
The hearing gathered the views of civil society on current developments in women's reproductive rights. Aline Brüser, from the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), stressed that menstruation, menopause, pregnancy and access to care were also workplace issues. Ana Peláez Narváez, from the European Disability Forum (EDF), related the difficulties faced in particular by women with disabilities and called on the EU Member States that still authorised forced sterilisation of people with disabilities to ban the practice. Deekshitha Ganesan, from Transgender Europe (TGEU), emphasised the need for an intersectional approach and explained how some healthcare practices were violating the right to equal access to care and human dignity for many in the LGBTIQ+ community. Bekky Ashmore, from Plan International UK, and Beatriz Rótoli, from the European Youth Network on Sexual and Reproductive Rights (YouAct), highlighted the reality of many young girls and young adults who faced the double discrimination of age and gender. Lastly, Emilie Jarrett and Cynthia Karanja, from the End Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) European Network, explained how 190 000 girls and women were at risk of undergoing this harmful practice in Europe.
Closing the event, José Antonio Moreno Díaz, Rapporteur for the EESC opinion on Combatting violence against women, underlined that
The historical mechanism of domination over women is everywhere - in culture, the economy, and society as a whole. This is a systematic element of repression; it is a cultural war. We all have to be feminists to fight for the rights of all human beings.