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  • Human Rights Research Center

Sexual and Reproductive Health Series: A Public Health Perspective

August 8, 2023

Part 1: Global Overview and History

Sexual and reproductive health (SRH) has always been a consistent determinant in a woman's health and well-being. However, it wasn’t until the last 50 years that this issue was finally brought to the forefront of global attention. In 1969, only 35% of married women in developed countries and 2% in developing countries used some form of contraceptive.[3] This period marked the emergence of the women’s liberation movement fighting for equality, property ownership, and the right to an education.[3] As the result of research and public health interventions to reduce child mortality and a desire to understand human fertility, the United Nations created the Fund for Population Activities, renamed Population Fund in 1987, to determine the socio-economic dynamics which supported the growing availability of new contraceptive methods.[3] The resulting effects demonstrated the obligation to provide women control and freedom over their reproductivity.

Even with this positive step, it took the world almost 30 more years to emphasize the need for the full rights of female citizens. At the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1999, the consensus that “Reproductive Rights Are Human Rights” was finally spoken.[1] With this new paradigm in the reproductive rights movement, a victory was at hand to inform and educate both men and women on SRH and its resulting health, economic, and social benefits. For example, investing in SRH, including preventing maternal death and unintended pregnancies, generates additional savings that can be used on education and social services, which improve a family's financial stability and productivity.[2]

In September 2000, the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were signed with eight goals to achieve by 2015. The MDGs included poverty eradication, environmental sustainability, improving maternal health, and reducing child mortality.[5] MDG 5 to improve maternal health focused on providing quality reproductive health to decrease maternal deaths. The goals’ success was considered significant, with a reduction of maternal deaths from 523,000 in 1990 to 289,000 in 2013; unfortunately, this was less than half of the target maternal mortality ratio.[5]

On the verge of the MDG deadline, it was superseded by the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015. A total of 193 governments decided to recognize and address the diverse challenges countries face together with specific goals like SDG 3 for Good Health and Well-Being and SDG 5 for Gender Equality. It provided a unique opportunity for countries to prove their conviction for the 2030 goals and overcome their challenges under the watchful eyes of almost 8 billion inhabitants of Earth. But there is the saying that actions speak louder than words.

Despite global acknowledgment, progress is slow. There have been some positive trends for the now 1.2 billion adolescents, with girls less likely to be married and have children before age 18, more likely to use contraception, and less likely to experience female genital mutilation, which is now recognized internationally as a human rights violation.[4] Yet, strict enforcement of gender norms and cultural taboos about discussing topics like menstruation are still major barriers to the progression of sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR).[4] In the past five decades, SRHR have made great strides, and more countries are focusing on female sexuality and the need for access and education to exercise their human rights. But disappointingly, hundreds of millions of women still do not have SRH choices. The obstacles are unavoidable, but the international community’s dedication to further breakthroughs remains resolute.

The next segment of the Sexual and Reproductive Health Series will look more in-depth at four countries on four continents, as seen on the map, to research their own perspectives and policies on SRH.


Download the accompanying infographic below or view it on our website here.

SRH Overview Infographic
Download PDF • 2.38MB



[1] Thomas, L. (2023, January 17). History of Sexual Health. News Medical Life Sciences.

[2] Singh, S., Darroch, J. E., & Ashford, L. S. (2014). The Costs and Benefits of Investing in Sexual and Reproductive Health. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

[3] United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). (2022, March 9). Reproductive Health and Rights: The History and Future. Giving Compass.

[4] World Health Organization. (2020, February 3). The changing world of adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights. World Health Organization.

[5] World Health Organization. (2018, February 19). Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). World Health Organization.


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