Sexual Rights: Leaving No One Behind

We are living in a period where society is now open to discuss a whole range of topics, including sexual rights.

An unprecedented number of countries have now legalised gay marriages, with an increasing number acknowledging the existence of the gay, lesbian and transgender population. Governments in many countries are also now recognising sexual assault and violence as serious crimes. Yet, there has also been growing anti-sentiments. not limited to violence, homophobia and anti-abortion movements.

Professor Sofia Gruskin, the Director of the Institute for Global Health and Program on Global Health & Human Rights, is on a pursuit to shed light on what is good and bad about today’s sexual rights landscape.

Speaking on “Engaging Human Rights for Global Health: Sexual Rights and the Importance of Definitions and Data to Drive Global (and Local) Engagement” at the recent Sir John Monash Lecture held at Monash University Malaysia, she highlighted some key issues in her journey to advancing health and rights for all.

Professor Gruskin focused on the effects of terminology; discuss how the nature of concern with specific topics including abortion, sexual orientation, gender identity or sex work influences the extent to which people engage in expansive or restrictive approaches; and raised some conundrums for the future.

“Sexual rights denote very different things depending on the actor and the context. For actors such as governments and political leaders, it is important to distinguish what they say and do within their own countries, and how that connects or disconnects with their foreign policy or work at the international level. This can be quite the same or different,” she explained.

Professor Gruskin suggested three overlapping streams that can be seen shaping the global health and rights landscape – and they can be loosely defined in three spheres - Legal, Technical, and Political.

“Actors in each sphere rely on the definitions of the other. So while it is fair to say the Political represents the lowest common denominator across all spheres, the Legal definition uses the Political and Technical to undergird the legitimacy of all positions particularly concerning sexuality and human rights.

“The Technical aspect is most apparent in the World Health Organisation’s work where they use evidence. This includes Legal definitions to shape and support the importance of sexual rights and health.

“Despite advancements in the Technical and Legal spheres, there are no political standards that recognise anyone who is not an adult man or woman or transgender that have sexual rights, nor are sexual rights valid for any reasons other than health on the political level,” Professor Gruskin said.

Her biggest concern is about the next generation as sexual health and rights generate strong opinions that are often steeped in social values, ideologies and morality. Hence for the next generation of researchers, policy makers and advocates, understanding sexual rights is key to what the field would be like in the next 10 to 20 years.

“How do we ensure the Political does not get in the way of what people need to learn in order to be effective researchers, programers, policy makers and human beings? There is a dire need for sustained dialog for priorities and lessons to be learnt across all disciplines, ages, institutions and continents,” Professor Gruskin said.

Closing her presentation, Professor Gruskin emphasised again what it means to engage in human rights in global health. “From my perspective, there must be a systematic and rigorous attention to definitions, human rights standards, law and public health evidence, to take us to where we want it to.”

“It is going to require support from research, teaching, training and programing that is not silo-ed, but to bring these strands together. We need vigilantes who focus on now and the future of human rights results, so better decision making can be made both locally and globally at the Technical, Legal and Political levels.

“A concern for health means we must all be concerned with ensuring greater support for human rights in all people and how this translates to the experience for everyone without distinction. We must truly not leave anyone behind,” she concluded.