Opinion: Speech from the Throne: Canada’s moment to commit to refugee health care

By Sandeep Prasad
Originally published in the Hill Times

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s inaugural Speech From the Throne comes at a critical moment in our history. Globally, we are more connected than ever. We are also witnessing one of the most significant refugee crises of our time.

Far too often in emergency situations like these, sexual and reproductive health-care needs are overlooked. There is often limited access to contraception and heightened risk of experiencing sexual violence, which increases the likelihood of unwanted pregnancies and the transmission of sexually transmitted infections and HIV. In its latest report, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reports that one in five women in emergency settings is likely to be pregnant. Without access to reproductive health services, these women face an increased risk of life-threatening complications. For instance, three out of five of all maternal deaths take place in humanitarian and fragile contexts and every single day some 507 women and adolescent girls die from pregnancy and childbirth complications in emergency situations and in fragile States. The sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls are at stake and Canada can play an important role in ensuring that care and support in emergency situations includes these vital needs.

This will require political leadership and financial commitment. Prime Minister Trudeau has already promised to admit 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada—with 10,000 arriving by the end of the year—and has mandated the new Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship John McCallum to provide limited and temporary health benefits to refugees and refugee claimants by restoring the Interim Federal Health Program.

These are important steps as cuts to health care for refugees and changes in immigration law made by the previous government have had significant negative consequences that disproportionately affect refugee women in Canada. The removal of coverage for sexual and reproductive health (including labour and delivery) put refugee women at particular risk by barring some claimants from receiving necessary pre/post-natal and delivery care, as well as limiting access to contraception, cancer screenings, abortion services, and supports in cases of intimate partner violence. Supporting equitable access to health care for migrants and specifically migrant women is therefore paramount, regardless of refugee, immigration or marital status, in addition to developing policies and programs that are grounded in human rights and uphold the principle of universality in the Canada Health Act.

But Canada’s role needs to extend beyond the provision of health-care services for refugees in Canada. The government has a responsibility to ensure that those impacted by crisis receive comprehensive, rights-based care through Canadian development assistance and effective foreign policies. As a first step, the new government of Canada’s commitment to close the gaps in the Muskoka Initiative through evidence-based strategies with respect to sexual and reproductive rights must be applied across all Canadian development initiatives.

This will require a deliberate international development and foreign policy that champions access to a comprehensive package of sexual and reproductive health services in all settings overseas. We would do well to follow in the footsteps of governments like the Netherlands and Sweden who have adopted similar policies that position sexual and reproductive health and rights as a central pillar of development. In the context of Canada’s global affairs, such a policy would not only build on but also transform existing multilateral and development efforts to ensure that advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights are comprehensively addressed as a key component of foreign and development policy.

Such a bold and crucial step would do much to ensure that this country is moving decidedly away from the approach of the previous government, which instrumentalized women as child-bearers and in which the centrality women’s reproductive autonomy was actively avoided.  The previous government’s commitments like the Muskoka Initiative on Maternal, Newborn and Child Health and efforts to address child, early and forced marriage and sexual violence in conflict must give way to a comprehensive and strategic approach that is grounded in evidence and best practice.

The new government of Canada has already made a number of promises, many of which we will hear commitment for on Dec. 4. What must be among them is a comprehensive commitment to realize the sexual and reproductive health and rights of all, including the needs of the 100 million people who are in humanitarian crises.

Sandeep Prasad is executive director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, a progressive, pro-choice charitable organization committed to advancing and upholding sexual and reproductive health and rights in Canada and globally.

Posted on 2015-11-30
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