We at RESURJ have an ongoing conversation on what a justice framework to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) can look like. It is a constant process of learning and unlearning. In the context of the International Safe Abortion Day, we’ve been discussing this with a specific focus on abortion. We recognize and support the increasing efforts by many SRHR organizations, activists and donors to adopt the language of justice to talk about abortion and SRHR.
While it is exciting to see more of us adopting this language, we are also aware of the critical need to ensure that a justice approach is unpacked to understand why and how the right to abortion can bring sexual and reproductive justice (SRJ) to all those who need or want abortions. Living a life free from violence and discrimination, accessing quality education and health services, access to justice and obtaining redress for human rights violations, are all core aspects of reproductive justice. We cannot just separate these issues as if they manifest in silos in our daily lives. As more donors begin to adopt justice language and a justice approach as part of their priorities, it is imperative that they evaluate and redesign their programmes to reflect the interconnectedness of our struggles. There are lessons to be learnt from some women’s funds here.
RESURJ’s own approach to sexual and reproductive justice encompasses an understanding of the interlinkages between our bodies, our health, and our human rights, and other ecological, economic and social crises of our times. This intersectional analysis of sexual and reproductive justice also necessitates an interrogation of any intervention through its interaction with multiple power systems, including gender, race, ethnicity, class and abilities. This has become especially critical today given that we are seeing countries globally adopt a seemingly comprehensive framework, such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, but then cherry pick the issues they want to address. This is a siloed approach and does little to confront the major structural challenges we are facing.
Since the 1990’s, women’s rights movements, especially south-based and those pushed to the margins, , have been exchanging experiences from their countries and articulating how discrimination, oppression, violence and poverty all shape our realities and affect the extent to which our rights are realized. These are conditions created by neoliberal and neocolonial policies that directly affect the most disenfranchised populations. The term Reproductive Justice was coined by a group of black women in the United States, Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice, and by women in 1994 prior to the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). It accurately names and recognizes the ways women from the global south had been organizing to resist colonization and oppression of their bodies for centuries.
Sexual and reproductive justice particularly speaks to the problem of inequalities based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and class, and positions the interconnectedness of these inequalities. This approach is clearly indicated in the graffiti on Ecuador streets that read: “no food sovereignty without body sovereignty”; and as the care economy and reproductive labour movements incorporate demands about territories, seeds, land and water, concepts like “Buen Vivir (Living Well)” become linked to peace and self-determination; Or the Sister Song campaign, which highlights the intersections of race and gender in abortion rights, and refutes the anti-black, misogynistic, and racist campaigns of the anti-choice movement in the US, that aimed to blame and shame women of color who had abortions.
Sexual and reproductive justice is about people. It is about all of us exercising our right to bodily autonomy, and living with dignity. It is about being able to enjoy our sexuality, without having reproduction as the ultimate goal in mind; and it is about being able to access safe abortion - regardless of whether abortion is legal or decriminalized. It is also about making fundamental decisions on whether or not to have children, how many children to have, and also about the right to be able to parent those children in safe and sustainable communities without the fear that the children will be subject to violence and hurt, or killed. Freedom from violence, oppressions and discrimination is sexual and reproductive justice.
We share below some examples from the global south on why a rights framework without a justice approach will not bring about the structural and meaningful change in people’s lives.
Feminists in Brazil have for years worked towards showing the impact unsafe abortion has on black, brown, poor and indigenous women of the North and Northeast of the country (regions that just happen to be the poorest ones in the country). Young feminists mobilizing in 2016 articulated the dire consequences of class with a banner that read “Ricas abortam, pobres morrem” (the rich ones abort, poor ones die).
Women from Ireland were calling for reproductive justice, including for and with migrant women who face multiple barriers to accessing abortion and other services. The death of Savita Halappanavar is a constant reminder of what happens when access to services is lost.
In Mexico women have always found a way to have abortions. However, those with privileges and strong social networks have always been able to access safe procedures, experienced providers and even travel to where it’s legal. But there is a profile of women that are criminalized for abortion. They come from marginalized communities, with low education levels, weak social networks, darker skin and are often, indigenous.
As we see from the cases in the US, legalization without a reproductive justice approach leaves women and anyone who may need an abortion without access to abortion services when they need it the most. Therefore, we urge others to work towards decriminalizing abortion, but not without holding states accountable for guaranteeing access to safe, legal and free abortion for all, since only then will we be putting the Reproductive Justice approach into action.
Ultimately, it is important that we work together to understand the framework of reproductive justice as one rooted in the realities of the most marginalized and disenfranchised, particularly those living in the global south, as well as women of color, black women, trans people, indigenous women, and migrant women situated in the global north. We must continue to establish interlinkages with social justice issues at large, insisting that sexual and reproductive rights including access to safe and legal abortion are the core component of social, economic, environmental, cultural, civil and political justice.