By Reena Gupta, MARCH A Theme Student Liaison studying for an MSc in Public Health for Development at LSHTM
February 12th marks the annual Sexual and Reproductive Health Awareness Day, an opportunity to raise awareness about sexual and reproductive health and rights, as well as educate about family planning, contraceptive choice, and how to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted infections. UNFPA, the United Nation’s sexual and reproductive health agency, views good sexual and reproductive health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being relating to the reproductive system. This implies people are able to have a satisfying and safe sex life, the capability to reproduce, and the freedom to decide, if, when and how often to do so.
In 1994, the International Conference on Population Development (ICPD) in Cairo recognised family planning as a human right and outlined goals towards gender equality, marking a shift in the way we think about development to focus on improving individual lives rather than achieving demographic targets. However, there remain millions of women and girls who have yet to benefit from the promises made in Cairo. The importance of sexual and reproductive health and rights is recognised by the United Nations in the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically targets of Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being and Goal 5: Gender Equality. The SDGs reflect a stronger commitment by the international community to obtain targets by 2030 that address sexual and reproductive health rights.
At LSHTM, the MARCH Centre is working tirelessly to explore and advance sexual and reproductive health rights globally. Dr. Cicely Marston, co-lead of the MARCH Centre’s Adolescent theme, believes there are several challenges in sexual and reproductive health we need to tackle to achieve the SDGs. These range from threats to freedom by forced-pregnancy advocates in the U.S., identifying effective services for women in humanitarian crises and emergencies, more effective contraceptives and improved access to abortion. There is also a great need for better SRHR programming for people with disabilities, and ensuring that the most marginalised groups are offered the best fertility and maternity care for them.
Currently at LSHTM, researchers such as Dr. Veronique Filipi are involved in the STEP-UP programme aimed at generating policy-relevant research to promote an evidence-based approach for improving access to family planning and safe abortion in Bangladesh, Ghana, Kenya, India, and Senegal. As a member of the International Centre for Evidence in Disability (ICED), research fellow Maria Zuurmond conducts participatory research focusing on children and adolescents with disabilities. In collaboration with other institutes and organizations, a team of LSHTM researchers also lead a portfolio of studies to evaluate the impact of ‘DREAMS‘ – a PEPFAR-led partnership to reduce HIV incidence among young women in Kenya, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
In October 2018, the MARCH Centre hosted UNFPA’s Executive Director, Dr. Natalia Kanem and her colleagues to highlight the release of their 2018 State of World Population 2018 Report: The Power of Choice, which highlights the positive effect family planning choice coupled with economic and social support can have on family size decisions, and thus global economic and social progress.
“2019 is the 25th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). This is where sexual and reproductive rights were first recognised as human rights. If the ICPD Programme of Action cannot be achieved, the SDGs cannot be achieved. This means that meaningful inclusion is central to everything we do; reaching the furthest behind first to guarantee equal rights and equal choice,” said UNFPA UK Director, Matt Jackson.
Mr Jackson also added, “Men and boys can make the ICPD commitments visible in their own roles and can influence change on the ground by working to include all members of society in those decisions…young people can use their personal stories, draw on their rights, and make persuasive arguments with the greatest passion. The voices and actions of young people are critical to ensure that everyone benefits from the promises made in Cairo 1994.”
UNFPA and the government of Kenya announced a Summit – ICPD25 – in Nairobi this November. Throughout the year there will be a series of events around the world to re-inspire a commitment to the agenda of ICPD. In the UK, UNFPA hopes to organize youth dialogues where young people can share what the ICDP agenda means to them and reflect on how they view their rights currently, and how they hope to see their rights evolve in the future. UNFPA also plans to release a 2019 population report that focuses on stories from women who are 35 and 60, highlighting how their lives were affected by their sexual and reproductive health rights.
New challenges have arisen since 1994, including demographic shifts and population changes. Now more than ever, we must consider the intersectionality between rights and development as well as advocate for quality health services to maintain and enhance people’s reproductive health rights. In the words of Matt Jackson, “Now is the moment to celebrate, re-inspire, and re-commit to reproductive rights and choices for everybody – no exception.”