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America's small change on 'sexual rights' could have big impact

The US government has announced a slight language change to its policy regarding sexual and reproductive rights. It could help the US target global issues such as early child marriage and HIV/AIDS prevention, activists say.

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    Rebecca Flaig of Goochland, Va., left, and Ryan Jung of Richmond hold their umbrellas aloft as part of the World AIDS Day event on Brown's Island in Richmond, Va. in 2011. The US government has announced a slight language change to its policy regarding sexual and reproductive rights. It could help the US target global issues such as early child marriage and HIV/AIDS prevention, activists say.
    Dean Hoffmeyer/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP/File
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The United States government will now use the term “sexual rights” in discussions of human rights and global development, it announced this week, marking a significant shift.

The change comes as hundreds of world leaders prepare to meet and lay out a variety of sustainable development goals aimed at eliminating poverty and hunger by 2030. Achieving those goals requires empowering women around the world and reinforcing sexual and reproductive rights, advocates say.

Sexual rights is an umbrella term for reproductive health, sexual orientation, and sexual violence. It includes people’s “right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence,” said Richard Erdman, a deputy US ambassador to the United Nations, in an announcement Tuesday. “That language characterizes the human rights of women ... and stresses equality between men and women in matters of sexual relations and sexuality.”

Until this week, the US had voiced its support for “sexual reproductive health” and “reproductive rights,” but it was "not acknowledging sexual rights," says Serra Sippel, president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity.

The US had come in for criticism abroad for making this distinction. But after heavy lobbying from lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender groups, the US has now agreed to the change.

With this minor language change, Ms. Sippel says, the US is now in a position to be a major contributor addressing global issues like early child marriage, HIV/AIDS prevention, and female genital mutilation.

“It does have practical implications for our US foreign policy and assistance,” she adds.

For example, the language change can help make US foreign aid “more effective,” allowing the country to allocate aid for pressing sexual rights issues overseas, she says.

She suggests that furthering the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls will also contribute to furthering global development as a whole. The 2030 Agenda notes that “the achievement of full human potential and of sustainable development is not possible if one half of humanity continues to be denied its full human rights and opportunities.”

One goal is to “ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights” by 2030.

In making his announcement this week, Mr. Erdman clarified that the US government will use the term “sexual rights” and “sexual and reproductive health and rights” only to express rights “that are not legally binding,” and that sexual rights “are not enshrined in international human rights law.”

“Our use of this term does not reflect a view that they are part of customary international law,” he continued. “It is, however, a critical expression of our support for the rights and dignity of all individuals regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”

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