Last month, I was in Manila attending the 7th Asia-Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights. This was the seventh conference in a series that started in 2001 in Manila-so we went back to Manila-and that was then followed by five conferences: Thailand, Malaysia, India, China and Indonesia. The next conference, in two years time, will be in Myanmar.
Before I go on, I want to note my concerns as well as best wishes for the people of the Philippines. They have suffered terribly over the last few months, firstly from super Typhoon Haiyan at the end of last year and, since that time, the almost constant flooding in the area, with great loss of farmland, cities and also life. Considering the effort that was going on, it was wonderful that the Filipino NGO movement could come together to coordinate this special conference.
We had three days of discussion around the theme of examining our achievements, good practices and challenges towards a strategic position on sexual and reproductive health for all. It is 20 years since the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and a year before we gather together across all nations to look at the Millennium Development Goal achievements and at what is going happen in the post-MDG environment. The focus of this conference was to ensure that we could make absolutely certain that the important issues of sexual and reproductive health were part of whatever was going to be agreed at the UN for the post-MDG agenda.
Over 1,200 people from across Asia and the Pacific gathered at this conference. Unfortunately, as always, there were very few representatives from the Pacific-something that I think we need to address in our part of the world. I associate myself completely with many of the comments that were made by Senator McEwen earlier. One of the core aspects is for our nearest neighbours, the people in the Pacific, to be able to truly engage in the range of issues that are going on. They need to have support of donor countries like us and New Zealand. We had great support at this conference from the delegate from the Cook Islands. But surely, in the future, we could see delegates from many other areas, because the issues of sexual and reproductive health are of core importance to their nations.
The focus of the conference, as I said, was on looking at achievements, at good practices and at the challenges into the future. There were seminars from medical practitioners, community groups, the media and young people. In fact ,the first day was focused exclusively on the young people of the region. They came together to identify their own issues, their own concerns, but most particularly to look at us, who go before them, to ensure that their sexual and reproductive health will be catered for, will be protected and will be important into the future. They also concentrated very much on the issues of gender, because, as we know and as we saw today in a motion put forward by Senator Hanson-Young, India is moving towards much more restrictive laws around homosexuality and gender. It is an issue that is facing many of the nations in the Asia-Pacific. We also had some guests from the African nations who came to share their own experiences, which were truly horrific. We need to ensure that those important issues of health and sexual and reproductive health for people who are homosexual or transgender are identified and are truly serviced within the health agencies.
The debate was strong. There was a great excitement amongst many of the participants. The way the process worked was that people could attend a large number of seminars and very significant presentations. On the last day, a paper was presented to everybody, which is now known as the Manila Challenge. Mr President, the Manila challenge is the document that I have here in my hand, and I am going to quote from it at this point. We began by identifying ourselves. A number of participants came onto the stage and read out the document, rather than having it presented and everyone just sitting and noting it. With true Filipino flair, it was a dramatic process. I was really thrilled to be part of that. I do not know whether I was dramatic enough, but at least I got to have my say. It states:
WE, the participants of the 7th APCRSHR, representing sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) advocates from various sectors in Asia and the Pacific region have gathered in 2014 to review the 14 years of SRHR action since our first conference in Manila in 2001.
WE recognise the persistent gross inequities in sexual and reproductive health outcomes across the region and within countries and the failure to ensure SRHR for all. These are reflected in high maternal and neonatal morbidity and mortality, inequitable contraceptive services across the region and within countries, high rates of adolescent pregnancy and early/forced marriages, high levels of unsafe methods of abortion and stigmatisation of safe abortion, high rates of HIV and STIs and poor access to treatment, growing incidence of poorly treated reproductive cancers, and appallingly high rates of gender-based violence.
Unfortunately, all of those issues were mentioned in the first conference in 2001, and they are still there and still challenging us all. It continues:
WE stress that respect, fulfilment and protection of SRHR expressed in the first declaration in 2001 remain unrealised, and discrimination and stigma continue to oppress marginalised women, sexual minorities, young people, people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups.
… … …
WE reaffirm and advance the goals of the ICPD Programme of Action and the Millennium Development Goals.
After the introduction, it went to the real point of what we were talking about, and that was the challenge into the future-and there are a series of challenges. This was for everybody. The challenge document read:
WE Challenge GOVERNMENTS in the Asia Pacific to take action by:
1. Acknowledging the centrality of SRHR to sustainable development, ensuring that it becomes a national priority, providing universal access to comprehensive SRHR information, services and supplies for all, at all stages of the life cycle, across all locations, and especially in times of emergencies-
This was particularly important to many of the nations in attendance at the conference because, as we all know, there have been a series of horrific emergencies across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and, most recently, the horrific flooding in the Philippines and, at the same time, the typhoon that hit Tonga. The document continues:
2. Implementing fully international human rights commitments …
3. Raising and allocating the necessary resources to fill the gaps and satisfy unmet needs in SRHR including family planning, estimated at USD7 billion in the region in the next five years if 2010 levels of funding are maintained;
4. Providing democratic structures, including safe spaces, and enabling environments to discuss and advocate for SRHR, focusing on inter-sectoral coordination;
5. Removing discriminatory policies and laws that systematically violate the human rights of vulnerable groups;
6. Making all elected and appointed officials more responsive and accountable for SRHR principles, policies and programmes;
7. Institutionalising and providing comprehensive sexuality education and youth-friendly services regardless of marital status, as well as respecting young people who are discovering their own identities and making SRHR choices;
8. Enhancing the accountability of the private sector in promoting SRHR within gender-responsive workplaces, and assuring occupational safety programmes and policies;
9. Strengthening public response to identify and prevent sexual and gender-based violence; and
10. Involving meaningfully all marginalised women, sexual minorities, young people, people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups in the development and implementation of SRHR legislation and programmes.
That took care of the governance. Then we said:
WE Challenge SCHOLARS AND RESEARCHERS in the Asia Pacific to provide additional evidence for policy-making and public education. This requires closer attention to the quality of censuses, surveys and other research methods, the assurance of ethical standards of data collection, the accessibility of publicly funded data sets and research results, and fostering of critical perspective in all analysis of SRHR research;
WE Challenge ACTIVISTS, AND COMMUNITY-BASED AND NON-GOVERNMENTAL ORGANISATIONS to strengthen their advocacy for SRHR and monitor the implementation of commitments and programmes on SRHR, both national and international, work with governments as both critics and partners, and be models of accountability.
WE Challenge YOUNG PEOPLE-
and young people were a key component of this conference-
to advocate and promote SRHR among their peers, to respect sexual preference and diversity, and to foster informed and safe sexual choices.
WE Challenge MEDIA PROFESSIONALS to promote public-
discourse on SRHR, and to provide accurate and reliable information.
That is something that could come across all areas of media. We said:
WE Challenge DEVELOPMENT PARTNERS-
When you, from Australia, are sitting there, you actually begin to shake when they say, 'We challenge developmental partners'-
to provide resources for SRHR in the region, support the sustainability of civil society organisations, contribute to the empowerment of SRHR advocates, ensure participation and leadership of civil society in global post-2015 discussions, and strengthen synergy and networking among SRHR advocates.
As this conference was focused quite clearly on the post-MDG agenda, we said:
WE Challenge the UNITED NATIONS SYSTEM to ensure that an "SRHR for All" agenda is captured in the post-2015 development framework.
We grab this time because what happened in the original development of the MDG process was that issues around sexual and reproductive health rights were not placed in the original debate. What happened, only after extensive discussion and advocacy from people around the world, was that the UN MDG process was enhanced to have issues around sexual and reproductive health placed in that process. We cannot afford to lose the time this time to be behind so that these processes are not core to the agenda-because there are going to be so many demands, there is going to be so much discussion. And over the next few months leading up to the large UN discussion around what will happen post-2015, we need to ensure that all nations understand the importance of this rights based approach and that the post-Cairo agenda will be central to whatever happens next. If we do not do that, all the work that we have done up until now will be lost. That will be detrimental to our communities and it would be particularly detrimental to the promises that we have made to young people that they will be listened to and their needs will be taken into account. We said:
With improving economies, continuing technological innovations, and dynamic young populations, we envision an Asia-Pacific region where:
- Countries have integrated SRHR in their development plans and investment programmes;
- Communities have access to SRHR information and services;
- All people exercise their reproductive and sexual health and rights; and
- Everyone lives a healthy life.
This is a world of conflict, crisis, and persistent inequality and it is common for governments to cite other priorities ahead of SRHR. Missions of rescue, rehabilitation, and programs of development must address SRHR as core elements, without which all other investments are diminished.
They cannot be dismissed or marginalised. For this reason, the people who gathered together in Manila said:
WE CHALLENGE all governments, civil society organisations, and religious institutions to demonstrate respect for SRHR by acknowledging SRHR needs of all people in all contexts now and into the future.
This document is now available. We know that people have taken it back to the nations across the Asia-Pacific. We know that people will be advocating within their own governments. I think it is very important that we advocate within our own government here, on a number of levels. The challenges that I have just identified out of this conference do not belong just to developing countries, they belong to all of us-because we all have a role to play. The discussions we had in Manila were about what had worked, what had had an impact in countries such as Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea and the Cook Islands. We know that there need to be effective education programs. That is the No. 1 issue that came out consistently: people need to understand their own rights and they need to understand what they must do to keep themselves safe and healthy and ensure that their future generations will be safe and healthy.
That is not just a challenge for countries that are in the developing world; that is a challenge for our country as well. When you have the absolute honour to attend such a meeting it is truly confronting not only to share the experiences of inspirational people, who have overcome challenges that I cannot even begin to understand, but to actually know that some of the issues about which they are talking are real in our own nation. They must be confronted and we must develop our own responses.
When I was asked, as an Australian person there, what our program of education about sexual and reproductive health rights was across our whole country it was not an easy question to answer, because we have such variation. Each of the states have their own processes, there are different issues engaged, and we know that there is not a uniform curriculum around these issues and very much is left to chance. We sit there and think, 'Oh! That is awful,' when it happens in India and we hear about the variation of access that people have to education about their own bodies and their own futures. We sit back in a kind of complacency and think, 'That is terrible.'
But if you look at what is happening across Australia today you can see the variation in education programs in our own schools: the lack of knowledge that young women and young men have about their own bodies and their own choices. It is something about which we should be challenging ourselves almost on a daily basis to see whether the knowledge is as clear as it ought to be in our nation. That is a challenge for us in Australia. As Australians who are working in the UN system, particularly now with our high-profile engagement in the Security Council, and it is a challenge for us when the further meetings occur, both at the regional and the international levels.
When the nations of the world come together to look at what is going to happen post-2015, their commitment must echo what happened in 2000 when-I think, to some people's shock-all the countries who signed up to the MDGs made a commitment that they would seriously look at poverty in our world. That did occur. I said that one of the things that was talked about was good practices and achievements. Some nations expressed pride when they talked about the advances they had made on maternal mortality. They talked with pride about the way that adolescent marriage was being responded to in legislation. They expressed pride about increased midwifery practices across their nations. All of those things came directly from the international MDG agenda.
We have a challenge post-2015. We must be part of that challenge. We take our knowledge, we take our expertise, but I think we also should take a great deal of personal challenge and commitment to making sure that, post-2015, the issues of sexual and reproductive health will be central to the agenda, and people will know their own choices and their own bodies.