Sexual and reproductive health and rights aren’t controversial, they’re essential and life saving. Rights and health services related to gender, sexuality, and reproduction support each person’s ability to make decisions about their own bodies (like if and when to have children), help build a culture of consent that protects personal safety and support the end of gender-based discrimination and a culture based on equality.
For decades, experts and research on public health and economic and social justice have demonstrated the benefits associated with realizing these rights. Why then, are they considered controversial and why must they be protected and championed in political contexts around the world?
Too often—in Canada and internationally—we see elected officials initiating attacks on women’s reproductive choices, young people’s ability to access accurate health information, and the rights of LGBTQI people. Controversies around sexuality, gender, and reproductive health are manufactured and exploited on the grounds that women’s bodies and choices should be controlled by governments and that marginalized groups should not be offered the same human rights protections as all individuals. This is a serious problem.
Although they don’t receive as much media attention, there are thankfully also progressive governments, opposition parties, and individual parliamentarians standing up to defend and promote these rights within their capacity as politicians, and with the support of feminist and social justice advocates, in every country around the world.
These parliamentary champions play a vital role in protecting human rights. That’s why 16 years ago, roughly 50 of them first came together in Ottawa to promote and protect sexual and reproductive health and rights at the International Parliamentarians Conference of the Implementation on the ICPD Program of Action. The conference has since taken place five times around the world and on Oct. 22 will bring 150 parliamentarians together again in Canada’s capital—three times the number since 2002.
These parliamentarians are at the front lines: responsible for the elimination of discriminatory laws and policies, the enactment of progressive legislation, and advocating for increased spending on sexual and reproductive health (both domestically and in official development assistance). They played critical roles in passing legislation to legalize same-sex marriage in Australia, in blocking Poland from criminalizing abortion, and in Canada, passing legislation to add gender identity and expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination and repeatedly working to safeguard access to safe and legal abortion.
The countless activists who protect and fight for these rights rely on parliamentary allies to advocate for progressive policy change and hold the line in the face of regressive law and policy discourse. When access to inalienable human rights depends on any government’s legislative decisions, the presence of a robust group of parliamentary human rights defenders becomes critical.
This is why it is so important for Canada to be convening this group of parliamentarians with a clear message: attacks on women’s bodies and their reproductive choices, on the right to live free from violence, and on all other rights associated with health, genders, and sexualities will not go unchecked.
Canadian parliamentarians from across all major political parties have been among these parliamentary champions for decades. And with support from Canadian sexual and reproductive health and rights organizations, they have continued to hold the Government of Canada accountable to better support rights domestically and in Canada’s international development assistance.
By hosting the IPCI conference, Canada is supporting the parliamentary actors who advocate for change within their roles as legislators and demonstrating its support for sexual and reproductive health and rights to the world.
This is part of a larger journey Canada is on to reposition itself as a leader on gender equality, women’s rights and sexual and reproductive health and rights more broadly, which includes launching the Feminist International Assistance Policy and hosting the Women Deliver conference in 2019.
For Canada’s commitment to be truly lasting, continued support is needed for the feminist and human rights advocates working with their decision-makers at all levels of government to establish and protect laws, policies, and programs that safeguard these rights.
Sandeep Prasad is the executive director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights.