Time to act – opportunities for an EU feminist foreign policy that champions sexual and reproductive rights

by Sara Österlund

VIDC Online Magazin Spotlight

This article was published in Spotlight October 2023. If you want to receive the quarterly Spotlight, invitations and documentations please subscribe here.


Sara Österlund is Senior Policy Advisor at the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU), which is the Swedish member association of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). Österlund has 25 years of work experience in human rights, gender equality and SRHR, with a focus on international development cooperation and foreign policy. Together with Idil Shekh Mohamed she co-authored the report “Time to act - opportunities for an EU feminist foreign policy that champions sexual and reproductive rights”.

Demonstration for access to safe abortion, Mexico City, Spring 2019, © Victor Chima

Today, like every other day, more than 800 women and adolescent girls will die from complications related to pregnancy, childbirth and unsafe abortion. The vast majority of these deaths take place in low and middle income countries, and the vast majority are preventable. Hundreds of millions of women and adolescents who want to avoid pregnancy lack access to modern contraceptives and are denied access to safe abortion. The violations of these rights have devastating effects on the lives and health of individuals, families and societies. In this context, the EU must step up its efforts and become a stronger voice and funder of gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) globally.
In a newly published report, the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU) and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) European Network suggest that the EU, by taking on a feminist foreign and development policy that centres on SRHR, can play a much more significant role as a progressive global leader for people's health and lives, rights and development.

Exacerbating inequalities

Access to SRHR services and information are very poor or non-existing in many parts of the world with the unmet needs being the biggest among young women and adolescents. Adolescents are denied the most basic education about their bodies and reproduction and are left with myths and misconceptions. Levels of sexual and gender-based violence are high: 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. In many parts of the world, levels of maternal mortality are unbelievably high: in Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Somalia around every 20th girl (aged 15 today) will die from maternal causes sometime in the future.
The EU has the power to change this and to contribute to positive development by being a stronger global voice for SRHR, and by allocating much needed funding to the SRHR sector in low and middle income countries. The EU is already an influential global actor, driven by core values such as equality, democracy, and respect for human rights.

SRHR is a prerequisite for development

By stepping up on gender equality and SRHR, not only will the EU contribute to people being able to live healthier lives, it will also enable them to participate in and contribute to a democratic and economic development. SRHR are very closely linked to gender equality and women’s empowerment which, in turn, is fundamental to poverty reduction and economic and democratic development. Being able to control one's own body is the starting point for being able to participate in the public, political and economic spheres. As long as women and girls do not decide if or when to have children, are married off or suffer severe injuries due to childbirth, their participation in the society will remain limited. When people have access to contraceptives, comprehensive sexuality education, safe abortion, and the power to decide over their own lives and bodies, only then will their economic, political and social opportunities improve.

The definition of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR)

In 2018, the Guttmacher-Lancet Commission on SRHR published a report which presented a groundbreaking and integrated definition of SRHR. The rights are based on the human rights of all individuals:

  • have their bodily integrity, privacy and personal autonomy respected
  • freely define their own sexuality, including sexual orientation and gender identity and expression
  • decide whether and when to be sexually active
  • choose their sexual partners
  • have safe and pleasurable sexual experiences
  • decide whether, when and whom to marry
  • decide whether, when and by what means to have a child or children, and how many children to have
  • have access over their lifetimes to the information, resources, services and support necessary to achieve all the above, free from discrimination, coercion, exploitation and violence

The opposition

Today, we see an articulated and well organised opposition to gender equality and SRHR. Europe is no exception. Limiting access to safe abortion, banning comprehensive sexuality education and restricting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBTQIA+) persons are central components of these movements. Restrictions on SRHR often go hand in hand with restrictions on other freedoms such as freedom of expression, freedom of the press and the right to organise. The U.S., Poland, Hungary, Iran, Brazil, Russia and Afghanistan are a few examples of where authoritarian, anti-democratic developments have been linked to severe women’s rights violations.
In Iran, already during the Islamic regime’s first decade (1979-1989), women were stripped of significant rights. The government reduced the legal marriage age to nine years old, women were forced to leave several government positions and the hijab became compulsory for all women. The leaders of Iran continue violating women’s rights, including their sexual and reproductive rights. A bill called “Rejuvenation of the population and support of family”, passed in 2021, blocks access to and information about contraception.
In Brazil, anti-gender movements played a key role in the election of Jair Bolsonaro of the Social Christian Party – of evangelical inspiration – as president of Brazil. Brazil ́s UN diplomacy during Bolsonaro was oriented to oppose SRHR as exemplified by the anti-abortion “Geneva Consensus Declaration on Promoting Women's Health and Strengthening the Family“. The anti-gender rhetoric in Latin America in general always coexist with the hierarchical structures of the Catholic Church boosted by the evangelicals with strong and close connections to the American New Christian Right.
Enormous financial resources are funding anti-gender movements and the institutions that support them, which are leveraged into acceleration across global regions. RFSU and IPPF European Network want to see a brave and persistent global EU voice for SRHR, one that, regardless of opposition and the increasing rise of anti-liberalism, keeps the dialogue alive and pushes the gender equality and SRHR agenda forward, including the more contested areas: the right to legal and safe abortion, LGBTQIA+ rights and comprehensive sexuality education.

Recommendations: strengthen and advance SRHR in EU’s external relations

Our recommendations to the EU institutions (the European Commission, EU Delegations in partner countries, the Council of the EU, and the European Parliament) highlight the importance of integrating SRHR into all aspects of EU external policies, actions, and funding. We also call for a strong global leadership and engagement with civil society organisations. An EU feminist foreign policy should involve addressing root causes and understanding the intersections of discrimination faced by different groups in order to leave no one behind.
All EU institutions should:

  • be strong global voices for SRHR, including the most contested areas, such as safe abortion, comprehensive sexuality education, and LGBTQIA+ rights. The EU should make a special investment to protect and politically and financially support organisations and movements working for SRHR, LGBTQIA+ and gender equality in anti-democratic countries and contexts. 
  • monitor the implementation of the Global Europe Instrument (NDICI) and funding allocations to gender equality and SRHR, using tools like joint programming and Team Europe Initiatives. Regularly assess the progress and effectiveness of Global Europe funding allocations, ensuring that resources are effectively directed towards promoting gender equality and SRHR. The Delegations should use the mid-term review of the multi-annual indicative programmes (MIPs) as an opportunity to allocate more funding to gender-targeted actions, including SRHR.
  • pursue the implementation of the Gender Action Plan III (GAP III) and ensure that adequate attention is given to more sensitive priorities such as SRHR. EU Delegations should increase the number of gender-targeted actions they are funding, with a special focus on SRHR. The EU must make sure that the key principles highlighted in the GAP III, in particular intersectionality and gender-transformative approach, are fully embedded in the GAP implementation.

By fulfilling these recommendations, the EU institutions will take on a more powerful role in promoting justice, empowerment, and the realisation of fundamental human rights for all (21 September 2023).