'Sexual and reproductive health issues do not exist in isolation'

Dr Eden R Divinagracia,
Chair, 7th APCRSHR (right)
Shobha Shukla - CNS
The theme of the 7th Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights (7th APCRSHR), which opened in Manila on 21st January, 2014, is: Examining achievements, good practices, lessons learned and challenges: towards a strategic positioning of Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights. In an interview given to Citizen News Service (CNS), Dr Eden R Divinagracia, Executive Director, Philippine NGO Council on Population, Health and Welfare, and Chair of 7th APCRSHR lamented that currently abortions are illegal and unconstitutional in Philippines, and yet the country has more than 500,000 cases of abortions every year.

Conference Chairperson Dr Divinagracia stressed upon the need to engage more with young people especially, as many social customs prevalent in the Asian region are harmful for our adolescents, more so girls, resulting often in unwanted pregnancies and then forced and unsafe abortions. She said, "The very objective of the conference is to bring various stakeholders from the Asia Pacific region - parliamentarians, clinicians, NGOs, and grass roots workers, among others, to share their good and bad experiences; the promises and challenges of reproductive healthcare and sex programmes based upon human rights. I hope this conference provides a strategic position for the Asia Pacific countries to put their agenda on the map beyond ICPD aims and beyond MDGs. We call upon governments to allocate funds, not only for family planning, but also for other reproductive healthcare components, like preventing unintended pregnancies (especially in adolescents), looking after the needs of LGBT groups (especially prevention of HIV and STI), reducing maternal deaths, and focussing on infants and children so that infant mortality is drastically reduced in this region."

Dr Catibog, former Head of Family Health Department, felt that though the Filipino women are more empowered than those of some of the neighbouring countries, age old social factors make them still face challenges in the acceptance of the concept of their reproductive health. She was hopeful that the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act 2012, (informally called the RH Law) that is pending approval by the Supreme Court of Philippines, once passed would strengthen the sexual and reproductive health rights of women.

Jeross Aguilar, 7th APCRSHR comm. (left)
and Dr Tewodros Melesse, IPPF (centre)
Dr Tewodros Melesse, Director General, International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), felt that although having good and progressive laws is important, but more important is their proper implementation on ground level. While speaking at a press conference in the 7th APRCSHR he said that, "Prevention programmes should not be driven by fear - fear of getting pregnant or contracting STI by not using a condom. This tendency of prevention based on fear has to go - prevention should be practiced for the joy of living and based on mutual respect.  What we need is a more holistic, dynamic, comprehensive and integrated approach. The social dynamics within the family and community plays an important role. Teachers in junior classes can play a big role in educating pupils properly. Boys will have to be taught that men are not masters and that they do not know it all. Stereotype gender roles, like a man need not cook or wash, have to go. Sons have to be raised in a way so that they stop believing that cooking and washing is a woman’s domain."

Jeross Romano Aguilar, Trustee, International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) Philippines and Chairperson, Youth Steering Committee, Family Planning Organization of the Philippines (FPOP) echoed similar sentiments. Jeross is also a member of the International Steering Committee of 7th APCRSHR. He said that, "Men have to be taught about sexual and reproductive health and taught to respect women. Women have to be empowered enough to teach their sons to respect women and girls. Men may become older but no wiser unless they are informed from early childhood about this. So we have to start early, before all these stereotype gender expectations (of what a young man should be) are pushed down his throat. There has been a generation of strong women in my family. My mother and grandmother have been reproductive health activists and helped shape my thoughts and beliefs making me a third generation activist."

Jeross firmly believes that sexual and reproductive health and rights issues do not exist in isolation; rather they are cross cutting issues encompassing education, employment, and barriers in reaching and accessing services.

According to him, "It is all about collaboration - linking young people with adults, and forming partnerships to move forward. We believe that by ensuring collaborative work and making young voices heard we can make better policies. When one young person talks to another young person (man or woman) about reproductive health, the dialogue becomes more meaningful and effective and helps them to make healthy reproductive health choices. There is lot of stigma involved when we talk of reproductive health, especially when young men like me talk to other young men - you only want to talk of the number of girls you have slept with. Young men are often afraid to speak up within their peer groups, especially if it is in any way outside the accepted norms. We have to break this stigma and tell them that talking about reproductive health does not in any way make you any less of a man-- in fact it makes you more of a human being."

Shobha Shukla, Citizen News Service (CNS)
January 2014
 (The author is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service - CNS. She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA and received her editing training in Singapore. She has earlier worked with State Planning Institute, UP and taught physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. She also co-authored and edited publications on childhood TB, childhood pneumonia, Hepatitis C Virus and HIV, violence against women and girls, and MDR-TB. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)

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