Making it Concrete: Using the Sustainable Development Goals to Bring Sexual Health Rights to Women in Nepal

How do you take ambitious, global goals for improving human rights and conditions and make them concrete? How do you implement goals meant to improve the entire world, at a national level? Just ask Beyond Beijing Committee in Nepal.

Beyond Beijing Committee knows that in order for global goals to truly transform the world, they need to be brought down to the grassroots level. The group was formed in 1995, after the landmark United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women, where the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action—an ambitious global framework meant to advance women’s rights—was created. Beyond Beijing Committee’s goal was to explore how to effectively implement the Beijing Platform of Action in their country of Nepal.

The United Nations has since built upon the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action to create the Millennium Development Goals (in 2000) and now the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), launched in 2015. The SDGs outline 18 goals, which provide a roadmap for countries around the world to commit to tackling inequalities and improving the lives of all people. The SDGs are considered to be the most progressive and inclusive plan of action to date. Beyond Beijing Committee’s work focuses particularly on Goal 5, “Achieve Gender Equality and Empower All Women and Girls.”

That’s why Beyond Beijing Committee embarked on an advocacy and awareness campaign for the SDGs, translating the goals and targets into the Nepali language, and producing and distributing a booklet throughout the country to the people of Nepal in order to generate awareness about the SDGs, especially Goal 5.

“Awareness is a prerequisite for any action to be taken,” says Shanta Laxmi Shrestha, Chairperson of Beyond Beijing Committee. “It is not a sufficient condition, but it is a prerequisite. That’s why we believe when all people know the importance of this goal [to achieve gender equality], and how to translate this goal into practice, then they will be able to practice it in their daily life, in their personal life, in their professional life—into all aspects of their life.”

With the SDGs as a touchstone, a major focus of Beyond Beijing Committee’s work is based on one of the targets of Goal 5—ensuring that women in Nepal have sexual health and reproductive rights.

“Sexual and reproductive health is very much a basic right, especially for women,” says Shanta. “If women do not get their rights over their body and sexuality, if women do not get proper health services throughout their lives, they will not be able to live and function in a dignified way. And that’s the reason, apart from other rights, Beyond Beijing Committee has focused on sexual health and reproductive rights from the very beginning.”

One example of how BBC has taken the global Sustainable Development Goals and implemented them on a national level can be seen in their work making abortion in Nepal safe, legal, and accessible. “We first began our work back when abortion was not legal in Nepal. Since then, we have continuously focused on the issue of safe abortion,” says Shanta. With the help of BBC, abortion became legal in Nepal in 2002. But they didn’t stop there. Once abortion was legalized, they continued to advocate for better access to comprehensive sexual health services, including abortion, for women all over Nepal including in rural areas. They succeeded in ensuring that all 75 districts in Nepal offered comprehensive care, and last year won a huge victory of making sure that abortion was offered for free at all public health facilities. “We realized that even if these services were available, the very disadvantaged still couldn’t get them because they couldn’t afford to get to the private health centers. So now we have succeeded, not only in making safe abortion legal but also in making this service free for the most needy people in all public health facilities.”

Still, Shanta says that stigma is another powerful barrier for women who need abortions. Women who seek out abortions are often ostracized “at the family level, the community level, and at any religious functions,” says Shanta. “Unless we address abortion stigma, even though the services are very much available, women who need them will not get them because of the stigma.” Shanta says that BBC is working on this through what they call “Community Health Education” sessions, which gather small groups of around 20 women together with the aim of educating them about sexual health and rights, including abortion, and empowering them to raise their voices.

Shanta’s personal history informs and motivates her work to make sure women in Nepal have access to safe and legal abortions. “When I was around 24 years old, I went through an abortion when it was illegal,” she shares. Shanta was married with an infant and using contraceptives to prevent another pregnancy—which failed. She went through an unsafe, illegal abortion, and nearly died. “When I went through this unsafe abortion, even though it was done by a nurse, she had to do it full of fear and without proper facilities,” Shanta explains. “It really struck me that me, an educated person with a normal conjugal life, had to suffer in such a way. I thought, what about the women in Nepal who live in very remote areas, without education, without a good relationship—how much do they have to suffer? That really pushed me to work on this issue. I feel I must do it; I must do something for the women and girls of Nepal so they won’t have to suffer in their lives.”

Of course, just as success in achieving a global goal requires starting at the ground level, so does success at the ground level result in widespread change. Beyond Beijing Committee’s vision for the future, and for the ripple effect empowering women and girls with their sexual health and reproductive rights could have, is thrilling. “If the women and girls of Nepal had their sexual and reproductive health education on time, properly, and effectively, then they wouldn’t need to go to have an unsafe abortion; they wouldn’t need to risk their lives. Maternal mortality and child mortality would be reduced drastically. Girls would be able to perform better in school, and they would go on to receive higher education. With that higher education, they would be able to become leaders, including in political and in decision-making processes,” says Shanta. “Once their sexual health and rights are achieved, women and girls would be able to manage not only their bodies, but they would be able to help other people in their community—their neighbors, their family members—to be healthy and live productive lives. And they would be able to live in a dignified manner, as an equal being.”

Photography by Sara Hylton for Global Fund for Women. 

Sexual and reproductive health is very much a basic right, especially for women. If women do not get their rights over their body and sexuality, if women do not get proper health services throughout their lives, they will not be able to live and function in a dignified way.
Shanta Laxmi Shrestha, Chairperson of Beyond Beijing Committee