MADRE Articles

Sexual Rights are Human Rights

Posted on: Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Keywords: Women's Health, Combating Violence Against Women, Sexual Rights

A MADRE Position Paper

MADRE understands that sexual rights—including the right to exercise and express sexuality freely and safely; be protected from sexual violence and discrimination; be in charge of decisions about one’s own body; have access to information and services necessary for sexual health; and experience sexual pleasure—are human rights. Sexuality is essential to identity, social and personal interaction, and physical and mental health. And sexual rights are inextricably connected to economic, social and political rights: when one is violated, the others are affected.

Sexual rights have a firm basis in international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child implicitly protect sexual rights by guaranteeing rights to personal freedom, health, non-discrimination, equal opportunity, and protection from violence. Though intense opposition from several countries—including the US—has thwarted passage of a resolution directly addressing sexual rights, these rights are nonetheless becoming an increasingly accepted component of human rights in the international arena.

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in particular has spoken extensively about sexual rights as they relate to economic, social and cultural rights. In its General Comment No. 14, the Committee confirmed that the rights to sexual health, sexual freedom, and sexual education are protected by Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Committee also specified that, as it threatens health, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a violation of rights. In 1994, the UN Human Rights Committee ruled that the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights also prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation (Toonen vs. Australia). Other sexual rights, including women’s right to control the terms on which they engage in sex and be protected from sexual violence and discrimination have been even more explicitly documented in instruments such as The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. In 2004, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health reflected a growing international consensus on sexual rights when he wrote, “the correct understanding of fundamental human rights principles, as well as existing human rights norms, leads ineluctably to the recognition of sexual rights as human rights” (E/CN.4.2004/49 paragraph 54).

Unfortunately, governments throughout the world are failing in their responsibility to protect sexual rights. Publicly, issues of sexuality are cloaked in a framework of denial, shame, and disapproval. Consequently:

  • It is difficult for people to access accurate information about sexual health, including life-saving information about sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS;
  • People often hesitate to report and seek justice in cases of sexual violence;
  • Discrimination based on sexual preference and gender identity is rampant;
  • Violations of sexual rights are officially condoned or encouraged.

The sexual rights of women, young people, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people are especially vulnerable—and, as emphasized by the recent murder of Sierra Leone’s lesbian rights activist Fannyann Eddy, those working actively to secure sexual rights are particularly at risk.

In many cases, the world’s most powerful political, economic, and military institutions violate sexual rights not only through oversight but also deliberately. In November 2004, 11 US states banned same-sex marriage and eight of these also banned any similar legal recognition or benefits for same-sex unions. In over 80 countries, governments have declared consensual sex between same-sex couples illegal; restrictions on consensual premarital or extramarital sex between heterosexual couples are also increasingly strict. In the global South, the International Monetary Fund’s demands for privatization and deregulation of health care are violating sexual rights by converting essential health services into market commodities.

Around the world, armies use sexual violence as a tool for the torture, humiliation, and control of civilian populations. The power of mass rape to both brutalize individuals and attack the social fabric of a community makes it an especially destructive weapon of war. Coupled with forced pregnancy,1 rape is used as a strategy to eradicate entire populations. Following revelations of mass rape in the Former Yugoslavia and the use of rape as a weapon of war in the Haitian coup d’etat in the early 1990s, women’s organizations, including MADRE, came together to press the Organization of American States and the United Nations to recognize rape not as a “private” crime against honor or decency, but a form of torture and a war crime. As Linda Burnham, Executive Director of the Women of Color Resource Center, recently pointed out, the US Army’s policy of stripping Iraqi inmates naked and forcing them into sexual poses demonstrated once again the complex relationships linking military power, sexual domination, machismo, sexism, racism, and homophobia. But the silence, shame, and ignorance that continue to surround sexual violence make sexual war crimes some of the hardest to prosecute, as evidenced by the track record of the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda.

The current growth of religious fundamentalisms, through which misogynist interpretations of religious texts are used to advance reactionary political agendas, present a major threat to sexual rights. The United States, driven by the Bush Administration’s Christian fundamentalist ideology, has led a global campaign to limit the transmission of essential information and services related to sex and sexuality. Bush has declared his support for a constitutional amendment to legalize discrimination against gays and lesbians and has made clear his intent to appoint anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court. Internationally the Bush Administration has undermined international laws to protect sexual rights, for example by pushing ideologically-motivated abstinence programs in response to the AIDS pandemic, instead of the proven “safe sex” approach. In Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, fundamentalist Muslim governments are promoting interpretations of Sharia law, 2 under which people are sentenced to death for such crimes as having consensual sex with people of the same gender or outside of marriage.

When sexual rights are on the agenda, fundamentalist governments ally with the Vatican and the Christian Right, which suddenly assert “respect for cultural difference” as a pretense for disregarding international human rights standards. Human rights, however, are neither a Western nor a culturally relative concept, as groups like Women Living Under Muslim Law make clear. Moreover, the idea that any culture has one homogeneous set of values or traditions is false. MADRE recognizes that all people are entitled to the protection of international law whether they are confronting Muslim clerics in Iran or born-again Christian presidents in the United States.

End Notes


1“Forced pregnancy occurs when abortion following rape is legally denied, practically obstructed or unacceptable to women themselves on religious or cultural grounds.” (“Advancing Reproductive Rights Beyond Cairo and Beijing,” Rebecca J. Cook and Mahoud F. Fathalla). During times of war, forced pregnancy is used to weaken and punish a specific group by forcing women to give birth to their oppressor’s children.

2Sharia law is a religious code based on the Koran. Many Muslims understand it as a personal, moral guide (much the same way that many Christians understand the Ten Commandments). But in some countries, Sharia law has been used as the basis for a state legal system.


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