The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (also known as the SDGs) unanimously adopted in September 2015 by the 193 Member States of the United Nations ushered in a new era of hope in achieving the sustainable Future We Want for ALL. One that Leaves No One Behind!
Goal number 5 of the 17 Goals promises to Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls by the year 2030 and Goal number 3 commits to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.
Target 5.6 of Goal 5, Members States commit to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights as agreed in accordance with the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome documents of their review conferences.
The corresponding indicator to this target, (indicator 5.6.1) will assess the proportion of women aged 15-49 years who make their own informed decisions regarding sexual relations, contraceptive use and reproductive health care. It will also assess the number of countries with laws and regulations that guarantee full and equal access to women and men aged 15 years and older to sexual and reproductive health care, information and education (indicator 5.6.2).
Conversely, target 3.7 promises to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services, including for family planning, information and education, and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programmes.
Indicator 3.8.1 will assess the coverage of essential health services (defined as the average coverage of essential services based on tracer interventions that include reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health, infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases and service capacity and access, among the general and the most disadvantaged population).
It was therefore quite disheartening for many of us attending the third session of the Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development (ARFSD 3) held in Addis Ababa from 17th to 19th May 2017 to witness government representatives of at least seven African countries (Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Mauritania, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Togo and Niger) debate and argue their case for the need to remove or rephrase the word ‘sexual’ from the phrase “…universal access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services” – so well captured in the “Draft Key Messages of the Third Session of the Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development” – which is the outcome document that will be presented to the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) in July 2017 in New York as Africa’s input of agreed key messages.
The million-dollar question is – why would anyone subject an already agreed language of sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and reproductive rights (RR) to personal opinions and preferences? It is important to note that this is already a compromise reached following years of long and intense Governments negotiations. It is unfortunate that the compromise is subjected to renegotiations and further compromise at a time where what is required is to review progress made against the commitments already made.
We know very well that the most affected by lack of SRH services and choices are women, sexual minorities and young people, especially adolescents who are denied better access to information and services they need to make informed decisions, stay healthy, avoid unwanted pregnancy and childbearing, prevent and treat sexually transmitted infections including HIV, complete more years of school, and obtain the skills necessary to be economically productive. Research indicates that access to SRH information, services, and care helps young women exercise their sexual and reproductive rights, stay healthy, and become better prepared to meaningfully participate and contribute to local and national economies.
Again, let’s remember that the language of sexual and reproductive health and rights has been agreed by Heads of States and Governments in the 1994 Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, the 2003 Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (commonly known as the Maputo Protocol), the 2006 Maputo Plan of Action on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and several other statements, outcome documents and national policies and frameworks.
Sadly, at the 2017 ARFSD some representatives in trying to arrive at a conclusion proposed a compromise to edit the work ‘sexual’ to read just ‘health services’ others suggested ‘reproductive health’ while others ‘comprehensive health services’– how now? All in the name of being sensitive to African values and cultures! This was despite, the presence of African women and girls as individuals and as a collective including Major Groups and Other Stakeholders reminding our governments of the existing commitments. Even more disappointing was to witness majority of progressive African countries (except Ghana) give-in to a few regressive African countries on the language on sexual health that African women and girls and the most marginalized groups need so badly to live meaningful lives and reach their full potential. Essentially these groups were left behind, going against the spirit of the SDGs.
This year, Goals number 3 and 5 are among the seven goals that will be under review during the HLPF 2017. Of those opposing inclusion of SRHR language in the outcome document at the 2017 ARFSD, Zimbabwe, Togo, and Nigeria, are among the 44 countries that have volunteered to participate in the voluntary national reviews (VNRs). The aim of the VNR is to facilitate the sharing of experiences, including successes, challenges and lessons learned, with a view to accelerating the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. What successes and lessons will these countries be sharing – when even having the word ‘sexual’ in an outcome document is described as not being sensitive to African cultural values?
And so, it will be interesting to see how these countries will review and report on their progress in ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights as agreed in accordance with the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome documents of their review conferences (Target 5.6) and ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services, including for family planning, information and education, and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programme (Target 3.6)?
The right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health is critical to women’s and girls’ social, political and economic empowerment – and more so to ensuring No One is Left Behind!
How can we claim that the 2030 Agenda is an agenda of the people, by the people, and for the people – but which people? If we are going to leave behind the general and the most disadvantaged population not able to access SRHR services?
All the 17 SDGs seek to generate a virtuous circle in which progress made toward one goal enables progress on multiple other fronts. Meaning achieving SRHR will in effect contribute to the achievement of the other goals.
Perhaps it’s time for all incoming government officials have as part of their orientation intense training on SRHR (dos and don’ts) and most important, an update on already agreed SRHR terminology to avoid putting the countries they represent in an awkward position – because the evening of the 19th May 2017 in Addis Ababa was quite an awkward moment.
Nonetheless, our joint lobby and advocacy at the 2017 ARFSD ensured that the language was captured in the final outcome document on:- meaningful and inclusive participation of women in the full data cycle (collection, analysis and dissemination); calls for ‘equal pay for work of equal value’; concerted action to transform labour markets for women’s paid and unpaid care work; as well as calls for increasing domestic revenue through curbing illicit financial flows (IFFs) and instituting gender-just tax policies and systems.
Blog written by Rachel Kagoiya, Information Manager at FEMNET.