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Sexual and Reproductive Rights

Rights of Newborns

Aminu Magashi Garba - GFMER Coordinator for Nigeria and Marloes Schoonheim, GFMER, Switzerland


The World Health Organization (WHO) defines a newborn (also called neonate) as a child under 28 days of age.

The rights of newborns are usually part of the rights of women to safe pregnancy and childbirth, and of the rights of children.

Health risks and mortality rates

According to the WHO factsheet newborn deaths account for 40% of all deaths among children under five. Of all neonatal deaths 75% occur during the first week of life and between 25% to 45% occur within the first 24 hours. The main causes of newborn deaths are prematurity, low-birth-weight, infections, asphyxia (lack of oxygen at birth) and birth trauma. These causes account for nearly 80% of deaths in this age group. The vast majority of newborn deaths occur in developing countries, where many mothers and newborns do not receive skilled care.

Rights of newborns

High mortality rates among newborns is not just a public-health concern but, as demonstrated in a WHO Bulletin article, is increasingly regarded as a human rights concern of both newborns and the mothers who gave birth to them. The following events marked the increasing importance attached to the rights of newborns:

  • The rights of newborns are recognized in the third article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”.
  • In 1982 the UN Human Rights Committee stated that the right to life required states to implement measures to ensure survival and development.
  • In 1989 the International Convention on the Rights of the Child set out the rights of children, among which the right to survival. By ratifying the convention, national governments “have committed themselves to protecting and ensuring children's rights and they have agreed to hold themselves accountable for this commitment before the international community”.
  • In 1994 the Programme of Action of the UN International Conference on Population and Development established the right of women to go through pregnancy and childbirth safely by defining reproductive health and including “the right of access to appropriate health-care services that will enable women to go safely through pregnancy and childbirth and provide couples with the best chance of having a healthy infant”.
  • In 2010 the United Nations introduced a Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health. The main goal of this strategy is to save 16 million lives by 2015 in the world’s 49 poorest countries. In his foreword the UN Secretary General specifically mentioned the health risks of newborns.

Advocacy of the rights of newborns

As shown in the WHO Bulletin article Governments, NGOs and others increasingly use human rights, including those of newborns, for advocacy, application of legal standards and programming to improve the standard of health of newborns and suppress high neonatal mortality rates.

In a 1999 joint statement of WHO, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Bank and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) these organizations declared: “The right to life is a fundamental human right, implying not only the right to protection against arbitrary execution by the state but also the obligations of governments to foster the conditions essential for life and survival. Human rights are universal and must be applied without discrimination on any grounds whatsoever, including sex. For women, human rights include access to services that will ensure safe pregnancy and childbirth.”

Open access documents