Human rights



Human rights are violated every time a girl is married off under age 18, every time a child is denied an education and every time a person is subjected to abuse. Human rights also include sexual and reproductive health and rights – yet many people cannot freely decide the number, spacing or timing of their children. Some lack the information or means to make these choices, while others face coercion, discrimination or violence when they exercise these rights.

Protecting the rights – including sexual and reproductive health and rights – of all people is a precondition for individual well-being and collective sustainable growth. UNFPA works to empower individuals and communities to claim their rights through various strategies, including awareness-raising, trainings and life-skills projects. UNFPA also works with governments to support human rights standards that have been affirmed in national laws and international agreements, and assists them in fulfilling their duty to protect human rights in practice.

Human rights belong to everyone, everywhere

Human rights are essential for all people, and they must be protected, respected and fulfilled for everyone: for men and women, for people who are married and those who are not, and for people of all ages, regardless of status or identity.

Human rights include women’s rights and sexual and reproductive health and rights. This was affirmed internationally in the Vienna Conference on Human Rights in 1993 and the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994.

In fact, sexual and reproductive health and rights are part of a continuum of human rights, which includes the rights to life, health and education, the rights to equality and non-discrimination, and the right to decide the timing, number and spacing of one’s children.

These rights are interrelated and interdependent. For example, when an adolescent girl is denied access to sexual and reproductive health services, she is more likely to become pregnant early and to drop out of school – affecting her right to an education. She is also more likely to face death or injuries related to pregnancy and childbirth – affecting her rights to life and the highest attainable standard of health. Her choices and future potential will be curtailed – affecting her self-determination and right to an adequate standard of living.

Human rights are critical to individual well-being and collective sustainable growth. ©UN Photo/Martine Perret


A long road ahead

The last few decades have seen the enactment of laws and policies protecting women’s rights and sexual and reproductive health and rights in many countries.

Despite this progress, there has been inconsistency in the enforcement of these laws and implementation of these policies. Many marginalized groups and vulnerable populations have seen limited progress.

A key example of this is the uneven progress made in ending early and forced marriage. One of the most universally ratified human rights conventions in the world, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), prohibits child marriage and affirms that marriage can only take place with a person’s free and full consent. According to the 2012 Marrying Too Young report, more than 158 countries reported passing legislation raising the minimum age of marriage to at least 18 years. But child marriage persists, even in places where it is illegal. Some 146 countries continue to have sub-national or customary laws allowing girls to be married below the age of 18 with parental consent, the report says.

Empowerment and accountability

With other UN agencies and civil society organizations, UNFPA advocates for the development of international human rights standards and accountability frameworks. These help to track the implementation of recommendations on sexual and reproductive health and rights. UNFPA also works with regional and national human rights protection systems, including national human rights institutions.

By strengthening national accountability and human rights protection systems, UNFPA helps monitor the delivery and quality of sexual and reproductive health services. This aids efforts to remove barriers that prevent certain groups – such as women and girls, adolescents and persons with disabilities – from accessing these services. For example, UNFPA recently supported an analysis of health care equity by Viet Nam’s Ministry of Health. Following the analysis, the Government committed to improving access to sexual and reproductive health care for vulnerable and impoverished populations.

UNFPA also works with specific groups facing sexual and reproductive health violations. For example, UNFPA is collaborating with the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of indigenous peoples.

Human rights at the heart of UNFPA's work

UNFPA applies a human rights-based approach in all its programmes. This means promoting human rights and gender equality is a core focus of all UNFPA activities – from the training of midwives and the development of comprehensive sexuality education curricula to supporting governments’ capacity to protect and fulfil human rights.

Incorporating human rights into UNFPA’s work also leads to more sustainable programmes and stronger results. For example, in Brazil, UNFPA works with the Stork Network, a national maternal and child health programme, to improve the availability, accessibility, acceptability and quality of sexual and reproductive health services. Emphasizing the importance of women’s rights to this work, a Stork Network partner told UNFPA: “Strengthening women’s autonomy and empowerment is crucial: a misinformed woman, a woman who is not aware of her own pregnancy process, is a vulnerable woman. Often in health care, women are infantilized. Autonomous, strong, competent women should be a goal of primary care.”

Updated 6 January 2016.