Legal and Policy Changes

Legal and policy changes to promote healthy sexuality can include reform of laws related to sexual and domestic violence, policies that include sexuality education in public schools, reform of family laws to increase the rights of women to property and inheritance, and enforcement of laws against cultural practices harmful to reproductive health (such as female genital mutilation). Legal changes promoting healthy sexuality can help foster changes in public attitudes, and changing attitudes in turn make enforcement of the laws more likely and more effective.

Governments around the world have already taken some important steps toward policies favorable to healthy sexuality. For example, Mexico, Colombia, and Chile passed laws in 1994 making sexuality education obligatory. In India, a recent law stipulates that if a woman dies within 7 years of marriage from "unnatural" causes (including accidents and suicide), the police are obliged to investigate the possibility of a dowry- or marriage-related death. The police departments in many parts of the country also have special units to deal with complaints about domestic violence, although there has been much criticism about how they really operate. In Brazil, there are now 200 police stations staffed entirely by women to deal with domestic violence (Ford Foundation, 1992).

Female genital mutilation is now outlawed in some African countries (Kenya, Senegal, and the Central African Republic). However, even where it is outlawed, the practice may continue in secrecy, with those suffering complications inhibited from seeking help (World Health Organization, 1994). In 1994 the United Nations 47th World Health Assembly adopted a resolution to encourage all countries to "establish national policies and programs that will effectively, and with legal instruments, abolish female genital mutilation. … and other harmful practices affecting the health of women and children."

Nongovernmental organizations have contributed in vital ways to improve health services and health policies and laws in most parts of the world. In Africa, a network of organizations is working to change public attitudes about female genital mutilation and to encourage government leaders to speak out against the practice and to enforce laws against it where they exist. Other organizations have focused on the issue of violence against women, providing counseling and support and practical help to victims and working to change public attitudes and law enforcement. In Zimbabwe, for example, a group called Musasa has conducted training sessions for the police and other government agencies (Stewart, 1996). There is a need for improved communication both among nongovernmental organizations and with governments on issues affecting women's health and sexuality. Such dialogue will enable them to be more effective agents for policy change.

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