See below an excellent speech by South Africa’s Minister for Social Development at an event on SRHR at the margins of the UN General Assembly. She discusses sexual rights, reproductive justice, and the links between human rights and development.

Address by Minister of Social Development, Ms Bathabile Dlamini, MP, on the occasion of the United Nations General Assembly on the commission on population and development on harnessing the demographic dividend and ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health in Africa, at the UN Headquarters in New York.


19 Sep 2014

Chairperson, Ambassador Mamabolo;
Your Excellency President Chissano;
Dr Babatunde Osotimehin;
Dr Bience Gawanas;


I also wish to acknowledge the presence of my Special Advisor, Mr Zane Dangor, and colleagues from the South African government: Mr Thokozani Magwaza, Deputy Director General for Social Security; Ms Lumka Oliphant, Chief Director for Communications; Mr Marthinus van Schalkwyk, Director for Multilateral Relations in Social Development; and Mr Jacques van Zuydam, Chief Director for the National Population Unit and Facilitator of the negotiations that produced the Addis Ababa Declaration.


Colleagues, diplomats, senior officials of United Nations Agencies, representatives of civil society organisations, and distinguished participants; It is a great pleasure to participate in this panel, which includes Africa’s top leadership when it comes to population matters. To my fellow panelists, I want to acknowledge the huge role that you are playing in putting Africa’s population matters on the global agenda, whilst at the same time giving direction and leadership to the continent on the issues that affect all of us, but especially our women, children, older persons, persons with disabilities, and the youth.


As South Africa’s Minister of Social Development, I should perhaps start with the stance our government takes in relation to population and development. The South African Population Policy, in accordance with the South African Constitution and guided by the International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action (ICPD), emphasises the attainment of sustainable development and places people at the centre of that development.


Development is seen as a process of enlarging people’s capabilities and ensuring that they enjoy long, healthy and creative lives. This is based on an approach that fundamental human rights and sustainable development cannot be separated if we are to improve the lives of people.


The phrase ‘population and development’ is very important for us, as it marks a sharp departure from the ‘population control’ policies of the apartheid government. Population control policies under apartheid penetrated all aspects of life. Black South Africans enjoyed no freedom of movement, and no reproductive choice. Access to abortion was illegal. Black women were subjected to enforced long term contraception regimes, often without their knowledge, while the social assistance system supported elements of the reproductive choices of white women through supporting their children.


Heterosexual relationships between members of different race groups were illegal and so-called offenders were hunted down and prosecuted. And off course, no freedom from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity existed. In fact, the brutality of the apartheid regime against persons of lesbian, gay, bisexuals, transgender, queer and intersex orientation or identity was so severe that, when we attained our freedom, we ensured that this would never happen again in our society, and we entrenched freedom from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in our constitution alongside all other protections.



This background is very important for us when we reflect on the Addis Ababa Declaration and what it says about sexual and reproductive health and rights. Sexual and reproductive health and rights can, of course, never be divorced from the pursuit of gender equality and equity, and the full empowerment of women. Sexual and reproductive health and rights is at the centre of gender relations, as much as the full realisation of Sexual and reproductive health and rights cannot be achieved in the absence of gender equality and equity.


It is, therefore, important for us that the Addis Ababa Declaration builds on the existing provisions of the African Union to recognise and promote these rights. It commits us to harmonise our national legislation with all the relevant international instruments on gender equality and women’s empowerment and the protection of children, particularly to support and protect the girl child.


For us, the Declaration’s commitments to “adopt and protect the human rights of all individuals, without distinction of any kind” and to “prevent and punish any kind of hate crimes without distinction of any kind, and take active steps to protect all persons from discrimination, stigmatisation and violence” marks a firm recognition of what we struggled for against apartheid, and may I say, colonialism across our continent. The Declaration goes further, with a commitment to “enact and enforce laws and policies … to respect and protect sexual and reproductive health and rights of all individuals.”


Sadly, many countries could only agree to these very progressive commitments on a condition, namely that the commitment is subject to being “in accordance with national laws and policies”, or “within the national political and legal framework.” I want to emphasise the word “sadly” – how committed can one be to the rights of individuals if you still seek to do so within existing laws and policies? And, let’s remember these conservative policies and laws were in many instances imposed on us by our colonisers to deny women, children and sexual minorities the freedom to privately choose and live their sexual and reproductive lives.


Having said this, we obviously must make work of changing the laws and policies that hamper any individual’s right to choose. But Chairperson, let me hasten to add that the notion of “choice” carries an assumption that options are available and that our broader social and economic systems actually work in support of the ability to choose. In this regard, feminists and/or gender activists and particularly blacks across the world are beginning to refer to reproductive justice as a concept that best explains the realities of poor and marginalised women in many parts of the world, including in Africa. By referring to reproductive justice, these activists are not negating choice, which itself had to be struggled for by women. They are saying that real choices can only be made when women are empowered politically, socially, culturally and economically.


The Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice suggests that reproductive justice exists when all people have the social, political and economic power and resources to make healthy decisions about their gender, bodies and sexualities. Real choice, therefore occurs when it includes the rights for women to have children, for the state to support pregnant mothers who have chosen to keep their children, the rights to decent maternity and parental leave, the right to Child Care and Early Childhood Development services for the children and social assistance for children and their care-givers as part of a comprehensive approach to reproductive justice. If one reads the Addis Ababa Declaration, it contains all the elements that will lay the basis for African women to have access to reproductive justice.


The Addis Ababa Declaration makes provision for the overall social, economic and cultural development for all Africans, in particular women, adolescents and children.


Indeed, it is within this framework of reproductive justice that we should initiate a discussion on what we have achieved as a continent, and what we still need to do. For example, in terms of sexual and reproductive health and rights services, we also, have to invest more to improve access to modern means of contraception as well as comprehensive sexuality education.


In my own country we shall, in line with a broader approach to reproductive justice, provide maternal support for expecting mothers as part of the 1 000 days campaign. The campaign seeks to contribute to reduce maternal and child mortalities through improving access to nutrition for expectant mothers and new-born children. This will also include universalising access to Early Childhood Development Services up to four years. These services will complement the current extensive role of out of our Child Support Grant, which also contributes to improved mother and child well-being.


The kinds of services that improve the economic well-being of poorer women can in fact give them a real ‘choice’ in whether they may want to continue or terminate a pregnancy.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

In Africa we are not doing well in terms of the substantive economic emancipation of women. Women continue to be marginalised by the mainstream economy. It is for this reason that efforts to transform the economy, including land reform, more inclusive economic empowerment and other equity measures cannot be divorced from all sexual and reproductive rights, including abortion rights and services, as part of a comprehensive and more radical approach to reproductive justice.

Without sexual and reproductive rights and access to services as part of the broader women’s struggles for economic equality, social justice and violence against women, what we call ‘choice’ may just become an elitist individualised response to reproductive rights which would still be mainly, for the middle class and the rich.


The Addis Ababa Declaration makes a set of very important connections between rights, development and services. For me, this is where its progressive contribution to population and development in Africa lies. For the first time, we have a Declaration on population matters in Africa that recognises that we must not choose between rights and development, but that the one cannot be achieved without the other.


I must point out that often we as African delegations to the UN make this rather false distinction between rights and development, as if one excludes the other. We further tend to grant way too much power and prestige unto the West when we state that human rights are western impositions. This is not true. The international human rights instruments all stem from essentially western excesses starting with the Peace of Westphalia Treaty in the 1600s that ended 30 years of war and bloodshed in Europe. This was followed by the Charter of the United Nations that emerged from the two World Wars that were fought primarily amongst western countries. The other major human rights treaties and instruments also emerged as responses to western colonialism, western racism and the global oppression of women. Let’s not forget, that it was through global solidarity based struggles against the denial of fundamental human rights in South Africa that apartheid is today a crime against humanity under international law.


Human rights are therefore essentially products of southern, including African struggles against all forms of oppression. It is therefore not surprising that the Latin American countries are leading the world in advocating for the rights of all people without distinction of any kind. It is time that we as Africans lend our collective support to our Latin comrades as it is through empowering our people that we will also win the fight for the right to development and for equality between countries. Let’s take this opportunity to stop trading off the rights of our own people in the belief that it strengthens our fight for a more equal and just world.

I believe that the Addis Declaration provides a good starting point for us to do this. There are missing elements for us in the Addis Declaration, which we shall pursue in our national capacity. But collectively we should strive to use the Addis Declaration as our minimum platform for achieving a better Africa and a better world.


Chairperson and distinguished participants, we have spent a large part of the past year re-committing ourselves to the ICPD Programme of Action. That was important. But we cannot remain stuck in the battle to retain the Programme of Action for the next twenty years – we must build on it, so that next time we don’t spend time debating whether we need it, but rather to reflect on the progress that has been made with extending reproductive justice to all of Africa’s women and other marginalised groups.


Thank you.