Ireland’s Unfinished Business: Achieving Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights for All
By Ellen Corby, Key Correspondent for the Irish Global Health Network
The upcoming Nairobi Summit (12th – 14th November) will mark 25 years since the International Conference on Population and Development. There, a Programme of Action emerged that placed reproductive health and sexual rights at the centre of national and global development and was adopted by 179 governments worldwide. In anticipation of the Summit, the Irish Family Planning Association conducted a Civil Society Dialogue session in Dublin this Wednesday the 6th of November.
This Dialogue session created a space in which a large-scale, honest, critical feedback from key speakers could take place, in order to spark later discussion sessions with those present from various organisations on the ongoing drive to improve the state of sexual and reproductive health rights in Ireland. It gathered the insights, opinions and analysis of those contributors present for inclusion in a summary document that will both outline points to be raised by the Irish contingent travelling to Kenya and inform engagement beyond the Nairobi Summit.
IFPA’s Chief Executive Niall Behan and the Director of Advocacy and Communications Maeve Taylor introduced the opening speaker Minister Katherine Zappone, TD. While the Minister praised how far Ireland has come in the past decades, she outlined the problem areas that remain; financial barriers to the accessibility of contraception, including abortion services; the access to and standard of IVF; challenges for single parents; and the need to address the rising rates of HIV diagnoses. The Minister emphasised the need to address both gender and social inequality, as they are inextricably linked, and that “cost should never be a barrier to reproductive rights.”
Dr. Thomas Strong of ACT UP Dublin praised the many advances in HIV treatment and prevention in Ireland but emphasised the “punishing stigma” that still exists. He highlighted the invisibility of women living with HIV, and also made reference to the moral failure of deaths related to HIV happening globally “not because there were no treatments, but because [there is not] access to them”.
Orla O’Connor, the Director of National Women’s Council of Ireland, raised the issue of discrimination based on gender, and outlined a framework that recognises women as influenced by their overall experience of reproductive care, as experts in their own health, and the importance of intersectionality.
She highlighted the relationship between gender-based violence and reproductive rights: “violence is a barrier to women accessing these services”.
Lucy Peprah of AIMS Ireland outlined the racism experienced by migrant women in the Irish maternity care system.
Echoing O’Connor, she emphasised the crucial importance of listening to migrant women as individuals who understand their own needs: “Childbirth is a beautiful experience, but in 2019, migrant women are still afraid to seek maternity services here”.
Megan Reilly, the Vice President for Equality and Citizenship, Union of Students in Ireland, spoke of the burden falling to student unions to cover consent and sexuality education, a “hangover from the very inadequate sexuality education” experienced in Irish schools, emphasising the need for education to match the services that are provided to young people.
After the morning session, ten tables discussed the advancements made by Ireland, covering the changed rather than vanquished “taboo” subjects in Irish society, the increasing need for health services providers, and approaching the subject of access to services from a rights perspective. Relationships and Sexuality Education in schools featured heavily, along with reproductive justice and the apologies to those who had suffered in Irish society due to the Catholic Church. In a Global sense, the conversation focused on young people’s rising voices and the increase in access to family planning.
In the afternoon, Alison Spillane, Policy and Research Officer for IFPA stated that “Policy Approaches need to be holistic”, emphasising the need for wide-ranging reforms on contraception such as a Universal, state-funded Contraception Scheme, and the importance of the integration of human rights in the areas of accessibility, availability, and quality of all reproductive care.
Bella Fitzpatrick, the Executive Director of ShoutOut, outlined the knock-on effects for LGBTQIP+ students and their teachers created by continuing to allow Church-run, sex segregated schools. She also highlighted the invisibility of bisexual people in most funding programmes and the high rates of sexual assault that they experience.
Salome Mbugua, Head of Operations and Strategy with AkiDwA, said Ireland continues to lag behind, when racism, both outright and systemic, is still prevalent in service provision in the country, often leaving behind the spouses of migrant workers, or those on student visas. She lamented the fact that “We are leaving men behind”, allowing them to be absent from discussion around sexual and reproductive health rights.
The afternoon discussion pinpointed the policy gap and challenges in the areas of Sexual and Reproductive Health. Education and the voice of young people featured strongly once more, along with service accessibility through translation services and respect for the sexuality and integrity of those with disabilities. Globally, the protection of the LGBTQ+ community was stressed, and the point was raised that those most vulnerable, such as the homeless or those who are in a country illegally, are often invisible, and therefore are not reflected in the data taken in any one country.
It is clear that, while Ireland has made strides in the area of sexual and reproductive health and rights, this progress must not be taken as permanent, but must be both protected and strengthened in the coming years, to ensure the improvement of care for all.
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