Rotating Discussions

A group of conference participants at the rotating discussions
Photographer: Patrick Meinhold / Bayer AG

Reflections on the Role of international mechanisms in the advancing SRHR for hard-to-reach and vulnerable groups

The first afternoon of the conference was devoted to facilitated presentations about international mechanisms to promote SRHR for young people, people living with disabilities and those living in conflict zones or regions affected by natural disaster. Here, a brief summary of three out of five discussions is provided.

UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)

When Tanzila Khan, a trainer and CEO of Creative Alley from Pakistan, asked delegates what the CRPD was, most didn’t know much. So Khan started with basics. She explained that the CRPD is like a treaty, where there is unanimous agreement that people with disabilities are supposed to be recognised in the processes, policies and initiatives of the United Nations and its Member States.

It has been in existence for about a decade and is helping to challenge the gender bias that clouds access to rights, especially for women with disabilities, Khan told delegates. “Women with disabilities are sidelined in terms of education, in terms of any opportunity to have a normal life, because they aren’t seen fit to produce healthy sons.” She was speaking of the South Asian context, but delegates from other parts of the world nodded in agreement.

Inclusion is generally the first step to addressing social exclusion, which strips people with disabilities of their rights. “People with disabilities can be remarkable contributors in terms of progress,” Khan said. “But this doesn’t happen because stakeholders – that is where you come in – do not incorporate us into your world. I am saying this bluntly, because in many organisations I have been the first person with a disability to participate. This is always a shock for me, because there are at least a billion of us in the world.”

Khan then presented what she sees as the four basic approaches of civil society to disability. The Charity Model, in which a lot of funding is available for a one-time investment like buying one wheelchair. The Medical Model aims to fix a person with prosthetics or surgeries to allow them to ‘fit in’. The Social or Behaviour Model, which looks to alter the environment, making it more inclusive for persons with disabilities.

The final model was the focus of a great deal of discussion in this session. The Opportunity Model views the person with a disability as an opportunity. “For example, this wheelchair is manufactured and I am a consumer. I am a market,” said Khan. “But no one is making good wheelchairs. Anybody, anywhere, could need a wheelchair in their lives, but wheelchairs are not available.”

She offered that the Opportunity Model can trigger entrepreneurs to design services and products that people like her can use in order to have better lives. Delegates debated the value of this approach, citing some problems with the model, but largely agreeing that investment in social care can stimulate the economy.

Alison Marshall, the Director of Sense International, added that through the concept of universal design, many products and services for persons with disabilities can be useful for everyone. If a community has a pavement with a high curb, a ramp is good for the businessperson with a suitcase, the parent pushing a pram, an elderly person with a stick, and the toddler learning to walk. Everybody benefits from a ramp, including a person who may be a wheelchair user. “If we can pick that principle when we think about access to SRHR services, the idea is designing it for somebody with different access needs benefits everybody,” Marshall explained.

UN Human Rights Council (HRC)

One of the sessions in this discussion stream was facilitated by Sandeep Prasad, the Executive Director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, and Stuart Halford, Senior Representative to the UN for the Sexual Rights Initiative. The pair examined the mechanism of the HRC, with a focus on how to deliver better treatment and protection of SRHR for vulnerable groups. “Marginalised persons have been traditionally overlooked or actively excluded from SRHR discussions,” explained Prasad. “The experience of discrimination is compounded by violation of one’s sexual and reproductive rights”.

They led delegates through a discussion about how the HRC mechanism could contribute to an intersectional approach. They also examined how to shift knowledge of the processes (and their outcomes) from the global to local context.

There was agreement that decisions at the international level often failed to have impact at the local level, and local stakeholders were often excluded from global discussions. Prasad assured delegates that there was a solution, if they were willing to do the work. “Ensuring local voices and perspectives are really brought up from the grassroots and reflected in advocacy at the global level is the key here,” he explained. “We have to try to strongly interlink advocacy at various levels, and get better at communicating as global advocates to national and local advocates. We have to support them and make sure our advocacy is inclusive.”

UN Commission on Population and Development (CPD)

One of the sessions was led by Juan Antonio Perez. He explained that the CPD addresses population trends, and the integration of population and development in national plans. “There is particular focus on the implementation of the Cairo Programme of Action from national and regional to the international level,” Perez said. He advised delegates that there was a great opportunity for advancing the SRHR approaching. “Next year, in April, the topic will be sustainable cities, human mobility and international migration. This is an opportunity to push for SRHR for adolescents, women, vulnerable migrants, victims of hardship and persons with disabilities.”

Following the session, Perez said the main message he got from participants is that they want the CPD to be more inclusive and more relevant to the issues that we face today. “That would be an important reflection as we evaluate 25 years of the International Conference on Population andDevelopment (ICPD) in 2019,” he said. “We may have to think about the changes in our world and our expectations one generation after the paradigm change brought about by the ICPD in Cairo back in 1994.”

Other workshops looked at the UN Commission on the Status of Women and the High-Level Political Forum.