The women of Poland are currently fighting a law in parliament that could enforce a near total ban on their already restricted access to safe and legal abortion. How could this happen on a continent proud of its liberal SRHR laws? Can the SDG’s help promote the right to reproductive healthcare? Can mass-mobilization influence policy makers for the better? It becomes clear that the stakes are high at this years’ conference and the pressure is on to find solutions to the rising conservatism sweeping the continent.
This is the EuroNGOs, an annual convening of the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) community in Europe. This years’ theme "A Strong Start - Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in the 2030 Agenda", called for the SRHR community to consider how to promote the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and what strategies could be utilised to advance even the most taboo issues within the sector.
Engaging the world on the SDGs and sexual rights
The 2030 agenda is built around a set of goals negotiated by the UN to improve the lives of people and the state of the planet. Everyone at the conference was familiar with this agenda but it was clear that if the SDGs were to be successful, their biggest supporters had to be the general public - especially youth.
We need to take the SDGs out of the United Nations and into society - Guido Schmidt-Traub, UNSDSN
Kelvin Mokaya from Dance4Life represented the only youth panelist at the conference. This signaled that the space for youth voices was sorely lacking, despite youth organisations implementing some of the best youth centered SRHR programs on the ground. In a bid to bridge this gap, Mokaya suggested that civil society prioritise partnerships with youth organisations. For surely, it is young people themselves who are best placed to advise on effective practices to engage their peers.
Pleasure as a tool for engagement
“What’s your penis or vagina name?” was the first question posed to people walking into the side-session hosted by Love Matters and Choice for Youth and Sexuality. Wearing name tags with the words Purple Snake, Cock Cave and Glitter Flaps may have seemed trivial in the context of such a serious conference, however, the laughter and curiosity sparked in the participants reflected the success of talking about pleasure and porn to engage young people in topics of sexual and reproductive health.
Even if we’re not ready to talk about porn, our audience is - Michele Ernsting, Love Matters
The session encouraged participants to think of how to operationalise meaningful youth participation within their work. How could their organisations utilise a pleasure positive approach to engage youth? Although it was clear that the development community finds it difficult to create pleasure positive SRHR messaging, the strategies co-created during the session gave participants the confidence to believe that out of the box thinking may just be what the SRHR community needs in these difficult times.
Fighting rising conservatism in Europe
It was clear that conference participants are increasingly preoccupied with a troubling reality; that while SRHR organisations are focusing on the global south, the anti-choice lobby is rallying in the global north.
Elena Zacharenko, a policy and advocacy consultant unveiled a study based on the tactics utilised by anti-SRHR organisations attempting to influence policy makers in Brussels. The falsification of facts, aggressive lobbying, colonisation of human rights language and ability to mobilise in force are strategies that are slowly but surely changing the liberal European landscape.
The issue of who has control over a woman's body is fiercely contested by states - Stuart Halford, Sexual Rights Initiative
What could the European SRHR community do to reverse the tide? Suggestions started pouring in; increasing public engagement, making alliances, empowering voices of pro-choice youth, utilising the language of family and making a moral case for abortion. The session buzzed with excitement but considering the circumstances in Poland, was it too little too late?
As the conference came to a close, Veronica Noseda, National Coordinator of Le Planing Familial burst into the room to announce Polish legislators were backing away for the restrictive abortion law due to mass protests. The room erupts. This moment encapsulated the strength, solidarity and passion of an SRHR community that will stop at nothing to protect the hard won rights of European citizens.