This page offers topic-specific guidance on the use of the Human Rights and Reproductive Health Matrix, created by United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-supported POLICY Project Human Rights Working Group. To view other aspects of the Matrix, including guidance on other topics, please click on the Matix icon above.
Equal Access to Health Care
Countries are obligated by international law to prevent discrimination and to ensure equality of access in the provision of methods, techniques and services that contribute to reproductive health and well-being. Countries must make available to all family-planning counseling, information, and services; prenatal care, safe delivery, and post-natal care; prevention and appropriate treatment of infertility; abortion where permitted by law and post abortion care; treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS; and information and education on human sexuality, reproductive health, responsible parenthood, and harmful traditional practices.
Links to Reproductive Health
Adequate access to health care services can significantly influence patient use of the health care system and, ultimately, improve health. For example, most maternal deaths are preventable through timely provision of emergency obstetric care. Conversely, heightened reproductive risk results from inadequate health care access, as the AIDS pandemic tragically illustrates: partly due to their lack of access to HIV education, information, and prevention methods, the incidence of HIV is greater in young women than in men.
Human Rights Implicated
Impeding equal access to health services and information violates the right to health by restricting individuals' abilities to make personal healthcare decisions and to attain the best possible health status for themselves and their families. Other human rights, including the following, are also implicated by disparate access to health care:
Relevant Human Rights Documents
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), both treaties binding on ratifying countries, recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. In particular, CEDAW, Article 12, requires countries to take all necessary measures to eliminate discrimination against women in health care and to ensure that women and men have equal access to health services. This Article further requires that countries provide free and accessible health services in relation to pregnancy and post-natal care.
Additionally, the non-binding but highly persuasive consensus statements from the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD or Cairo) and the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing) highlight the importance of ensuring women access to acceptable reproductive health services throughout the life cycle and of implementing gender-sensitive standards for health care delivery. The CEDAW Committee, the body that oversees compliance with CEDAW, refers to the ICPD guidelines to determine country compliance with CEDAW Art 12. In their reports to the CEDAW Committee, countries therefore should detail their implementation of the lCPD Programme of Action.
Key Human Rights Arguments You Could Use
As another the ICESCR Committee notes in its General Comment on the Right to Health, access to health care is determined by the availability of specific services; the accessibility of services to the public; the acceptability of the services to different cultures, sexes, and age groups; and the quality of the services.
To ensure health services are acceptable, accessible, affordable, and appropriate to the needs of women, countries should integrate a gender perspective in their health-related policies, planning, programs and research. To do this, the ICESCR Committee encourages countries to develop and implement a comprehensive national strategy for promoting women's right to health. A major goal should be reducing women's health risks, particularly lowering rates of maternal mortality and protecting women from domestic violence. The realization of women's right to health further requires the removal of all barriers to sexual and reproductive health services, education, and information. In particular, countries should recognize and address harmful traditional cultural practices and norms that negatively impact women?s health and bar women from health care.
Legal Remedies You Could Try
Subjecting a country to international scrutiny is an effective way of pressing a country to modify laws and policies that permit human rights abuse. The international legal system offers women several ways to challenge barriers to their equal access to health care.
This Topic was written by Genevieve Grabman, JD, MPH, in collaboration with Anne K. Eckman, PhD and POLICY's Gender and Human Rights Working Groups. Questions and comments should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Programme of Action, para. 7.6.
 Report of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, 14th Sess., U.N Doc. A/50/38 (1995).