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Reproductive justice, sexual rights and bodily autonomy in humanitarian action: what a justice lens brings to crisis response

Working paper

Written by Megan Daigle, Alexandra Spencer

Image credit:Jessica Rennoldson Image license:CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) services are life-saving in humanitarian crises of all kinds, with needs for services rising even as underfunding and political deprioritisation of SRHR services remain stark. To date, however, humanitarians have not understood these lacks as a question of rights or justice for crisis-affected people.

Resisting the opposition of needs and rights, in SRHR and beyond, is crucial for ensuring that humanitarian responders – whether they are local, national or international – see, understand and constructively address those needs that are most pressing to affected individuals and communities themselves. Reproductive justice has the potential to shift the paradigm of humanitarian SRHR, facilitating better understanding of the meaning assigned to bodies, sexualities and reproduction. It also highlights the structural conditions, power relations, and interconnections that determine the potential for bodily autonomy in SRHR, in and out of crisis settings.

Reproductive justice can also demonstrate the potential for uniting rights-based and needs-based approaches to humanitarian response and improve humanitarians’ ability to tackle key agendas like inclusive and gender-responsive humanitarian action, PSEAH and GBV, and principled humanitarian action. Global progress has proven slow on SRHR, and conflict, displacement, and humanitarian crises have the undeniable effect of deteriorating care models, raising new barriers and exacerbating existing power imbalances. These alone, however, cannot explain away the enormous gaps and silences around SRHR as an indispensable set of essential services. Humanitarian response must be one piece of a wider, interconnected puzzle that bridges sectors and places bodily autonomy at the centre of action.