Brexit, Trump’s election, the discourse of the Polish and Hungarian governments and the success of the extreme right in different European countries lead to political and societal shifts that challenge sexual rights. The examples are numerous, e.g. the reintroduction of the Global Gag Rule, the attempt to restrict access to abortion in Poland or the heartless European migration policy that blocks refugees and asylum seekers’ access to (sexual) health services. For the ‘SRHR community’, the community of health workers, activists and policy makers who promote sexual rights, these evolutions are most worrisome. In a number of countries sexual rights have become a target of conservative and populist movements. They advocate ‘traditional’ values over ‘progressive’ ones, national interest over (international) solidarity and promote a narrow understanding of family, relations and identity, in contrast to sexual and relational diversity.
Don’t let the US determine the agenda
An important take-away from the conference is that the US should no longer determine the Agenda. Dependence of the ‘SRHR’s community’ on American funding should decrease, so that US opposition becomes irrelevant.
Andrea Peto, professor in Gender Studies at the Central European University in Hungary warned for a too simplistic representation of the facts. The ‘us’ versus ‘them’ story positions sexual rights in a ‘battlefield’ which NGOs can only lose as, compared to conservative governments and opposition movements, their means are limited. Kwabena Osei-Danquah, director of multilateral affairs at UNFPA pointed out that the opposition is far more complex and diverse than generally assumed. For example, Latin American conservative governments might criminalise abortion, yet are more open for the rights of sexual minorities. In some parts of Africa, exactly the opposite is happening.
Winning hearts and minds
Alexander De Croo, Minister of Development Cooperation and one of the leading figures of ‘She Decides’ was one of the speakers. He believes that the rights-argument might, in some contexts, be counterproductive and argued for a more pragmatic approach based on health arguments. “Defend access to abortion from the perspective of public health, not from a rights perspective”, he argued. Katja Iversen, head of 'Women Deliver' advocated approaching opposition proactively, with positive stories rather than taking a defensive stance. The emphasis should consequently lie on ‘those things that matter to people’s lives’, like having children, sexuality and relationships. Ton Coenen, executive director of Rutgers and Chair of EuroNGOs agreed with her point of view and emphasised the importance of developing a discourse that moves people. In short, ‘winning hearts and minds’ of the public opinion to counter populist and conservative movements.
The Parliamentarians for the 2030 Agenda, the Belgian parliamentary group with members of Chamber and Senate for which Sensoa acts as a secretariat, welcomed the conference participants in the federal parliament, where they listened to personal experiences with opposition to sexual and reproductive rights in the Plenary of the Chamber and closed with a reception.