It has been 23 years since the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) endorsed the Programme of Action (PoA), to create a critical paradigm shift towards recognition of gender equality, equity and empowerment of women, sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights (SRHR) as cornerstones to a sustainable population and development agenda. Despite some progress in the region, minor girls continue to be married before their prime, female ‘circumcision’ continues to be rampant, young girls and women are victims of honour killings, denied comprehensive sexuality education, access to safe abortion, remain marginalised and their SRHR rights violated – all with impunity from governments and even state complicity in some cases.
In the face of waning support for SRHR, gender equality and empowerment of women ARROW and UNFPA is currently co-convening a two-day Regional Dialogue on Human Rights, Gender and Development in the Asia-Pacific: Advancing the implementation ICPD agenda.
Thought leaders and activists from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Fiji, Palestine, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and Thailand have convened to:
Reflections of Day One
The setting of the stage started with the sharing of regional trends of the Asia-Pacific, which has two predominant population structures – relatively young and significant ageing populations. “About 400 million people still live in extreme poverty in the region despite the strides in reducing poverty,” according to the ED of ARROW, Sivananthi Thanenthiran. She added that the rise of inequalities in the region was not limited to income disparities but also related to unequal access to opportunities and services such as education, health, water and sanitation.
John Mosoti from UNFPA highlighted how growing conservatism and populism globally was impacting progress on the ICPD agenda. He termed it a “tragedy” that there had been no outcome document in the Commission on Population and Development (CPD) for the past three years and warned that if there was no outcome again next year, it can further weaken the ICPD agenda. He was of the opinion that the region had the responsibility to continue to push the ICPD agenda forward.
The focus of the first day was on country presentations on:
1) progress towards gender equality and women’s empowerment,
2) reproductive health and
3) sexual health and rights
Progress towards gender equality and women’s empowerment
In terms of progress towards gender equality and women’s empowerment, almost all of the participants from the 10 countries presented a few common griefs: (1) lack of political will that should be driving implementation of the ICPD agenda, represented by gaps in budgetary and resource allocations; (2) gender inequalities in the form of neglect of the girl child (especially prevalent in South Asia), declining sex ration driven by son-preference and sex-selection (prevalent in India), women’s low access to justice despite high women participation in the political sphere and increasing dowry demands that push number of child marriage up (as highlighted in the context of Bangladesh, the economic reasons of which expanded upon through Malaysia and Indonesia contexts); (3) and the use of religion to justify discrimination against women.
The need for better access to contraception, legal and safe abortion, and access to reproductive health information in nearly all the countries was highlighted during the presentations, although the resulting issues were contextualised. For example, high out-of-pocket expenditure is a major issue in Pakistan and Cambodia and in India; breast cancer remains the leading cause of death among women in Palestine; and – despite constitutional guarantees of reproductive health in both Philippines and Fiji – abortion is still illegal and contraceptive prevalence rate low. A common theme that emerged time and time again in the discussion on reproductive health is that of an unregulated private health sector with rampant malpractices. Amusingly, the Malaysian participant highlighted the fact that the improving maternal mortality rate was used to justify regressive practices (such as child marriage) in the country by conservative and fundamentalist voices.
Sexual Health and Rights
Young people’s sexual health and rights and youth-centric services have become a common focal point, either as something that needs to be achieved, or as an achievement (with more work to be done). However most countries are still lacking in terms of access and implementation of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), especially in places where such a topic is still considered a taboo, and teachers are reluctant to even talk about it. Malaysia highlighted the sexual transmission of HIV that has surpassed transmission through injection (in the case of drug users), and the difficulty women faces in negotiating safe sex – especially in marriages – due to the lack of bodily integrity. Malaysia, as with a few other countries, also highlighted the invisibility of the LGBTIQ community in public discourse, and the fact that sexual health and rights is rife with fundamentalism and conservatism; this also ties in to unmarried women being left out completely in SHR discourses due to cultural and religious expectations of women’s sexuality. Lastly, and lamentably, sexual health and rights is still framed under the purview of “biomedical”, which leaves out important concepts and realities such as mental and emotional issues related to sexual health.