A new normal where SheDecides: What needs to happen to get there?

By Robin Gorna

I want to live in a world where every girl and every woman can decide what to do with her body, her life, and with her future. Without question.

The SheDecides manifesto (below) outlines the vision of the world I want to live in: a world which respects, upholds and promotes my fundamental rights to decide what I do with my body, the choices I make, the pleasure I have, the people I share it with, the times I use it to bring more life into the world. And the times I do not.

As an old AIDS activist, with a passion for womens rights (my activism began in 1986 and I was one of the first to write about HIV and women; my first book was published nearly a decade later, after many articles etc), I am dazzled and frustrated to see how we can make progress in many areas, and walk backwards in others.

When I started my AIDS work we were all about convening workshops, writing brochures, designing sexy campaigns, extoling the delights of Safer Sex. We promoted to young women and men – and some older ones too –  the positive joys of sex, the ways in which we needed to modify what we do to avoid HIV and other STIs, as well as pregnancy. And that consent was Queen. We’d call it integrated programming now, or comprehensive SRHR.

These are not radical notions. The underpinnings are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and – as Mark Heywood & Thuthu Mbatha rightly observe in their excellent article they are bolstered by repeated declarations at United Nations and regional levels. What’s more: South Africa’s constitution has been heralded as one of the most progressive in the world. South Africa should be more than capable of creating a society where she decides. Yet the translation of good laws into policies and programmes is tough and complex, especially when sex is involved.

Mbatha & Heywood provide a rounded picture of that simplistic acronym: SRHR (sexual and reproductive health and rights). It gets flung around by professionals with few of them ever stepping back to remember that sex includes so much, including pleasure. Kudos to Heywood & Mbatha for bringing pleasure to the front of their paper and argument! They also rehearse, with great pain, the distance that must be travelled in order for South Africans to realise their rights, and enjoy good health in their sexual and reproductive lives.

Yes, activists must shoulder some blame – we have all too easily and too often collapsed into our silos – and there is much more that has brought us to this place. As a non-South African, perhaps it is not for me to comment on Pumla Dineo Gqola’s lament against “the culture of rape” that is so deeply embedded in South African society. Yet her description and analysis of the war on women’s bodies and autonomy cannot be denied: it is urgent that society tackles this perversion of culture, this abuse of the inherent goodness of sex.

Culture is society. Without tackling these enormities, these complexities, without shifting social norms, the promise and hope of the impressive South African constitution – or any brave international declarations – can not be realised. The rights of all people to enjoy their sexual rights, reproductive justice, the health and economic benefits that flow from those rights – all will remain a distant dream.

SheDecides has taken shape as a movement because it hooks into an urgent need to shift social norms, to shape a new narrative, removing the sting of historic battles and jargon and re-focusing communities and individuals on the simple story of fundamental rights: the autonomy of the body. It is an initiative designed to do what Barbara Klugman notes has been lacking: to frame these issues in ways that [catch] the public and media imagination[1]. It espouses the vision expressed by Mbatha & Heywood: All of it is connected…. SRHR can[not] be realised separately from other rights[2].

They go on to outline a plan of action, priorities that South Africa needs to work on. They remind us that the constitution provides the framework, that action is lacking, and they define an agenda to get the country back on track. It is a good one. Without doubt, tackling the rape culture and the HIV crisis are hot priorities for South Africa. And I would add in the urgency (for the 2018 short term) of getting good quality, comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in place in every school across the country; the importance of vigilance on abortion policy (and scaling up provision of medical abortion, including by non-specialists); and emphasising (over the medium term) action on SRHR as a means to achieve Universal Health Coverage (UHC) – clearly a top priority in South Africa, and one where evidence of the linkages is already emerging.

In their agenda, Heywood & Mbatha talk about action in schools this year. Yes, PrEP, and condoms and sanitary pads – but without the knowledge, skills and resilience to understand how all of these commodities relate to my body, the self respect and resilience to choose what I do with my body, making pills and products available to young people will never be enough.

In India, where SheDecides engages through many organisations, and especially our Champion Indira Jaising (a remarkable senior advocate who has driven legal and policy change for women over the decades) there are repeated stories of girls, as young as 10, raped by family members and then forced to give birth. Why? Laws and policies exist (not perfect, but so much better than most countries) but these girls and young women simply do not know that they have had sex or that they became pregnant. There is an abject failure of the state to provide education and information. Of course the law must step in and make sure that abortion is available and easy for girls in these dreadful situations, but education, culture, social norms must also shift for that to be possible.

Currently in South Africa there have been efforts to tighten up the abortion legislation making it tougher for women and girls who choose not to continue with their pregnancies, by reducing term limits and imposing a set of conditionalities (such as a requirement for ultrasounds). The National Department of Health (NDOH) argued against the amendments[3] pointing out that WHO guidance does not support the amendments, the costs are prohibitive – and, significantly, that the amendments will add further barriers to services, and to the ability of women and girls to decide for themselves. The NDoH leadership here is important. It occurs against a backdrop – highlighted by Mbatha & Heywood – of a situation where fewer than 20% of health facilities offer abortion, and in 2010 there were some 250,000 unsafe abortions in the country. Laws must not go backwards; services must reach those in need. The promise of the constitution is not being realised, indeed it is under threat.

Vigilance on abortion services and laws is key. Globally we see a well orchestrated campaign aiming to influence the rights of girls and women to decide for ourselves. The “Opposition” failed in Ireland (by a hefty margin!) but their tactics are smart. And that is why the solidarity of global movements like SheDecides is important. It is not simply a “Pro Choice” movement – although you cannot be a Friend of SheDecides without sharing a belief in the rights of girls and women to end pregnancies that are not right for them. Nor is the movement focused solely on ending the Global Gag Rule: the pernicious re-introduction and expansion of that nasty piece of US policy sparked the creation of SheDecides. It was an immediate reaction by (mostly Northern European) politicians who turned around in January 2017 and said No: She – not He! – should decide.

The movement goes much further than that, and also stretches far beyond the ambitions of Northern donors (as an aside, I’m not convinced (m)any of those governments see SRHR as “soft” or easy rights[4]). Rather SheDecides believes, quite simply, that every woman, every girl, everywhere should have the skills, knowledge, and quality services, laws and policies in place so that she can decide for herself what happens to her body – especially in respect of her sexual and reproductive life. That means amplifying the campaigns and work of hundreds of others, all over the world. The intention is to work across silos, to bring issues, people and organisations together: to add an extra push to what is already happening, not re-invent an initiative or organisation to add to the confusion of efforts.

The movement is little over a year old. Like any infant and toddler we have stumbled and taken a few wrong steps. Yet the vision and actions needed to achieve that vision are clear. With growing numbers of Friends – now almost 50,000 around the world, with 300+ organisations and some 40 Champions driving it forward – the call is to Stand Up and Speak Out; Change the Rules and Unlock Resources. Three simple actions, which combined can lead to the new normal expressed in the manifesto. Anyone who shares the vision of the manifesto is invited to sign it, and to take action in whatever way makes sense in their community. There are already many examples, and with national movements taking off in India, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and beyond. National movements reflect the global shape of a Political movement with Community Support.

Why Political? Politicians have power to allocate resources and change laws and policies – and some act even before they are asked to by civil society. Indeed the first words and pledge by (then) Dutch Minster Lilianne Ploumen took many community groups my surprise.

SheDecides is political – and it is also driven by young people: the leaders of today and tomorrow. It is no accident that the extraordinary changes in Ireland – overturning long standing abortion laws – occurred under a new leader who is under 40 (and also brown and queer). He understood the power of young people’s vision for progress, of the youth vote. Our best estimate is that over two thirds of the Friends of SheDecides are young people (under 30) – also no accident. The biggest push on the first ever SheDecides Day (2 March 2018) was from young activists, organising over 50 events around the world. At the Flagship Event (in Pretoria) more than half of the 300 participants were young people, debating and co-creating future actions with their Parliamentarians and Ministers from across the East and Southern African region.

In every country there will be different priorities, different groups and leaders who are best placed to drive change. Heywood & Mbatha argue passionately that the time is now, and that other efforts will fail if these fundamental rights are not protected and promoted. I agree. There is a long tradition of South Africans drawing on the global community for solidarity, whether it has been to end apartheid or to end thousands of deaths caused by bad AIDS policy. The global SheDecides movement stands ready to participate, to stand in solidarity – as and when South Africans decide “how and when”.

WHEN SHE DECIDES

The world is better, stronger, safer.
She decides whether, when, and with whom.
To have sex.
To fall in love.
To marry.
To have children.
She has the right. 
To information, to health care, to choose.
She is free.
To feel pleasure.

To use contraception.
To access abortion safely. To decide.

Free from pressure. 
Free from harm.
Free from judgement and fear.

Because when others decide for her, she faces  violence, forced marriage, oppression.
She faces risks to her health, to her dignity, to her dreams, to her life.

When she does not decide, she cannot create the life she deserves, the family she wants, a prosperous future to call her own.
We – and you, and he, and they – are uniting. Standing together with her so she can make the decisions only she should make.

Political leadership and social momentum are coming together like never before.
But we can go further, and we can do more. From today, we fight against the fear.
We right the wrongs.
We mobilise political and financial support.
We work to make laws and policies just.
We stand up for what is right.
Together, we create the world that is better, stronger, safer.  But only if. And only when.

She. Decides. [5]

 

Robin Gorna is an AIDS activist who lived in Pretoria, working for the UK Department for International Development, from 2007. She retains strong ties to South Africa. In the early 90s she wrote “Vamps, Virgins and Victims: How can women fight AIDS”, was ED of the International AIDS Society (IAS), the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (PMNCH) and now co-leads the global SheDecides Support Unit.

[1] see footnote 5 in orginal paper

[2] page 6 of orginal paper

[3] Yogan Pillay, personal communication. Power Point presented, 2 May 2018

[4] page 7 of orginal paper

[5] The SheDecides Manifesto, July 2017

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