Outlawing Women: Effects of laws criminalizing women’s sexuality

04 Mar 2010

New York -- UNDP, together with civil society partners – including women’s groups and LGBT groups, and academia, co-sponsored a panel discussion, “Outlawing Women - Effects of Laws Criminalizing Women's Sexuality” at the New York Bar Association.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action represented a significant step forward in identifying the human rights of women to include “their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.”  And yet, more than a decade later, the criminalization of women’s sexuality takes many forms and continues to increase their vulnerability, risk and disempowerment.

The discussion explored various dimensions and issues of criminalization and how they affect women. Susana Fried, Senior Gender Advisor at UNDP’s HIV Practice, highlighted the urgent need to address criminal laws that target and impact women's right to control their sexual and reproductive health and human rights. She also noted that while these laws often purport to protect women and safeguard public health, in practice, they often severely compromise women's autonomy, equality, and health and thus directly contravene the Beijing Platform For Action.

Amon Ngavetene, from the Legal Assistance Centre in Namibia, described the situation of Namibian women living with HIV who are being sterilized against their will. Although the Namibian Constitution protects “the right to life… human dignity… the freedom from discrimination and to found a family”, the practice of coercive sterilization of HIV-positive women further entrenches pre-existing stigma by removing the power of women living with HIV to exercise control over their bodies and their health. Claudia Ahumada of the World AIDS Campaign described the negative effects of Chilean statutory rape laws, which result in strictly policing girls’ bodies and choices and violating their rights. She called attention to the irony that governments often cite human rights as the basis for justifying such statutory rape laws.

“Women and Girls end up being  criminals,” said Melissa Upreti from the Center for Reproductive Rights.  She shared stories from the Philippines and Nepal, where criminal laws restrict or ban women’s access to safe and legal abortions, and limit or deny access to emergency contraception. She underlined the fact that the decriminalization of abortion is essential but this alone will not resolve issues of stigma, which are even more acute for HIV-positive pregnant women. 

Wendy Isaak from the People Opposing Women Abuse in South Africa, emphasized the stigma related to and underpinning laws criminalizing gender identity, sexual orientation and sexual expression, and described numerous impacts of criminalization including the fear, stigma, discrimination, violence and driving people underground and out of the reach of essential  HIV and health services and social support. Johanna Kehler, from the AIDS Legal Network in South Africa, highlighted that criminalization of HIV transmission and exposure can lead to increased internal and external stigma for women and is a major barrier to HIV prevention, treatment and testing.

Speakers suggested that in order to protect and promote women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, priority responses include: (1) the decriminalization of women’s sexuality, (2) legal and human rights advocacy and stigma reduction as integral components of HIV and health programming, (3) holding governments to account to provide sexual and reproductive health services, and (4) empowerment of women and girls as a key strategy to reduce their vulnerability and risk.

Co-sponsors included the Center for Reproductive Rights, the ATHENA Network, the Youth Coalition, the AIDS Legal Network, POWA, Sonke Gender Justice, the World YWCA and the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice and UNDP.