Stop Institutional Violence Against Women! Access to safe and legal abortion now!

16 Days of Action Campaign: WGNRR calls for the recognition of the denial of safe and legal abortion as institutional violence against women

In solidarity with women’s rights movements worldwide, in commemoration of the courageous actions by the women’s human rights defenders, and in support of human rights activists from across the globe, the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR) joins the worldwide 16 days of action campaign in defence of women’s freedoms, choices and dignity.

The 16 Days of Action Campaign links two international days of action – November 25, International Day of Action for Elimination of Violence against Women, and December 10, International Human Rights Day; emphasising that violence against women and girls is a grave violation of human rights. November 29, International Women’s Human Rights Defenders Day forms part of the 16 days of action campaign honouring women from all parts of the globe who engage in the defence of human rights on a daily basis.

As emphasised in the written statement to the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 57), WGNRR is particularly concerned with the high level of institutional/State violence reflected in the denial of reproductive health services that includes safe and legal abortion, limiting the full range of women’s human rights.

The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women and the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women ”Convention of Belém do Pará”, explicitly state that violence against women includes “physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the State or its agents regardless of where it occurs”. Thus, the systematic denial and withholding of access to safe and legal abortion through restrictive laws on the one hand, and through obstructing access to services on the other hand; constitutes an act of institutional violence that has a detrimental effect on the lives of all women in need of safe abortion services, specifically impacting the most marginalised groups such as young unmarried women, women living with disabilities, women living with HIV, ethnic minorities, sex workers, and LGBT amongst others.

An example of the grave impact of this kind of institutional violence on women’s life is the recent case of the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland. She was 31 years old when was admitted to the hospital miscarrying in the 17th week of pregnancy She made repeated requests for the removal of the foetal remains , but was refused and she spent several days in agonising pain and distress. The miscarriage took more than 48 hours, and when the doctors finally decided to remove the dead foetus, Savita had already developed septicaemia of which she died four days later on October 28th. Doctors denied her a life-saving abortion procedure despite Savita’s pleas and the legal provisions in place that allow abortion when a woman’s life is in danger.

It is disheartening to admit that this case is not exceptional. In August 2012, a pregnant 16-year-old, Esperancita, died in the Dominican Republic when she was denied lifesaving treatment. Esperancita was diagnosed with leukaemia and desperately needed aggressive chemotherapy which would have probably caused the termination of her pregnancy while giving her a chance of survival. Due to the nation's complete ban on abortion, doctors withheld chemotherapy for fear of being prosecuted under Article 37 of the Dominican Republic Constitution which holds all life sacred from conception. Both cases are an outrageous violation of women’s human rights and demonstrate yet again how States’ restrictive laws and policies disregard women’s lives.

Apart from affecting women who are in need of safe abortion services but are unable to avail of them, the institutional violence associated with restrictive access to abortion disproportionately affects the very defenders of the women’s rights to bodily autonomy and self-determination. Women’s Human Rights Defenders (WHRD) who actively advocate for women’s sexual and reproductive rights including the right to safe and legal abortion; often find their own lives and well-being at risk. Worldwide, the efforts of defenders of sexual and reproductive rights are shunned, side-lined, ignored or feared by broader society whilst their advocacy work is been viewed as offensive to cultural/religious/social norms.

As a membership based network we continuously receive accounts illustrating the magnitude of harassment that grassroots women’s rights advocates endure. One such case was in Cameroon, where a local grassroots network of women’s rights activists were commemorating September 28 – The Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion with a march of two hundred community members demanding revisions in the abortion law. However, as soon as the march began, two police vehicles appeared carrying priests, pastors and church wardens determined to interrupt the procession. Eventually, the police seized all campaign banners and cameras, while beating and pushing the community members around. Thirty community leaders were arrested and nearly one hundred people were injured. It took the local activists much time, effort and high legal costs to recover from this violent attack targeted to silence the growing outrage at the injustice perpetrated upon women by denying them access to safe and legal abortion.

Women’s bodily integrity and rights has always been a political issue, but we are increasingly seeing it become a political tool and pawn in the corridors of power, that continues to exclude women and continues to trade on women’s autonomy and integrity. This lack of official legitimacy contributes to the stigma, victimisation, harassment, attack, violence, discrimination, and even loss of life experienced by sexual and reproductive rights defenders, violating their human rights.

On the occasion of the 16 Days of Action Campaign; WGNRR calls on governments, international organisations, national human rights activists and international partners to include institutional violence that is generated by the lack of access to reproductive health services, including safe and legal abortion, into your advocacy agenda to combat violence against women. Equally, we are calling for the inclusion of policies that will protect human rights defenders; and particularly the advocates of access to safe and legal abortion. With protective policies in place, WHRD are able to carry out their work free of stigma, discrimination, and fear of violence and death.

We demand that governments:

a. Meet international human rights obligations by taking the necessary measures to ensure that girls and women live free of institutional violence whilst exercising their reproductive rights, including access to abortion services. In this sense we call them to:
i. Remove all kind of barriers and guarantee access to safe and legal abortion, especially when the pregnancy puts women’s lives and health at risk.
ii. Ensure that public policies are sensitive to reproductive health and rights of girls and women and to ensure proper treatment by health personnel, free from stigma and discrimination.

b. Pay particular attention to cases of women’s human rights defenders (WHRD) that have been threatened because of the nature of their work and protect them from State and non- state actors that can negatively affect their well-being and integrity.

We encourage international organisations to:

a. Prioritise the denial of legal and safe abortion as a form of institutional violence within the human rights international agenda, and urge governments to take all necessary steps to eradicate this form of violence.

b. Within the framework of your mandates, develop standards for the protection of sexual and reproductive rights advocates to be taken into account by States for the development of inclusive protection policies.

We encourage national and international human rights organisations to:

a. Include institutional denial of access to safe and legal abortion in advocacy agendas to combat violence against women, and to work together with women's organisations towards this end.

b. Invite and include in your programmes on human rights defenders; activists working on reproductive rights and especially advocates of safe abortion access.

Finally, we are calling on all our members, allies and partners in these 16 Days of Campaign in defence of women and in support of their defenders, to echo the voices of women who suffer the serious consequences of the institutional violence, who have lost their lives as a result of their human rights violations, who experience what it means not to have control over their bodies and the loss of autonomy to make decisions about their lives and health. We call on you to show solidarity with our sisters – defenders of sexual and reproductive rights, particularly those who have lost their lives for this cause, and those who have been victims of repression, extremism, intolerance, when attacked, threatened and intimidated with the sole purpose of decreasing their capacity as advocates. To them we say – we are all Women’s Human Rights Defenders!

Actions you can take now:
1. Adapt this statement to your local context.
2. Distribute and share the statement in your networks.
3. Address the issues reflected in this statement during your planned activities for the 16 days of action campaign.
4. Create public awareness and demand for your government’s responsibility to include access to reproductive health services, including safe and legal abortion, in combating violence against women.

To facilitate information sharing, we would like to know of your actions - statements - declarations, during the 16 days of action campaign. We will be happy to hear back from you with any feedback, stories, reports, illustrations of your activities that you would like to share. Please send them to

Stop Institutional Violence Against Women! Access to safe and legal abortion now!

Download the statement here:

Download WGNRR Statement for the 57th Session of the Commission on the Statement of Women here: