Disability Integration at the 7th Asia Pacific Conference on Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights

Today’s post comes from Krissy Bisda, representative of Persons with Disability Advocating for Rights and Empowerment (PARE), one of the W-DARE project partners.

It was a great opportunity for me to attend the 7th Asia Pacific Conference On Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), hosted by the Philippines, January 21 to 24, 2014 at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC). With a number of international participants and invited speakers, the gathering was really a significant event for all advocates of SRHR, as well as for researchers in the sector. There were rallies of Pro-Life communities seeking to impede the conference, based on the belief that the gathering was a campaign for implementation of the long argued issues surrounding the Reproductive Health Law, (RH Bill).  Anti-RH rallyists are opposed to sex education and women accessing contraception and safe abortion.  But “The show must go on”, so everything continued until on its last day, the symposium was not hindered by the Anti – RH rallyists.

Personally, I think that my presence in the huge conference was not simply for learning and for exposure on the global SRHR issues.  Another purpose perhaps is to highlight the emerging issue of women with disabilities as a serious problem SRHR activists need to address locally and globally. I listened to all keynote speakers and lecturers, and I was struck by a line uttered by Dr. Enrique Ona, (Department of Health secretary) which said that, “those who oppose RH bill will benefit from it too. And reproductive health excludes no one, and it is for everyone.” What he said is probably half true in relation to inclusive development.  Usually SRH programs cater to social groups like sex workers, aging population, persons living with HIV, victims of early marriages, survivors of rape cases, single mothers etc.  but have overlooked people with disabilities specifically as an important portion of the population that would benefit from, and have the right to, SRHR.

I participated in one of the satellite sessions hosted by Japan and Kyrgyzstan, and after listening to their reports and presentations about the struggle of SRHR in their respective countries, I posted a question about the status of women with disabilities in their home countries, as well as if there are also disability related initiatives in SRHR. My initial expectations were confirmed, that they did not do anything about women with disability and they said that it might be a good idea to think about in the future. The response to my question did not suggest any interest in immediate action to make SRHR more inclusive, and it seemed to me that it did not appear to be seen as a serious subject notwithstanding of my firm emphasis in the session. I joined again another session steered by India and Pakistan, particularly by the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), discussing integrated counseling involving SRHR. In the open forum, I posted a similar query. IPPF responded with confidence that their counseling programs on SRHR covers all types of clientele and is inclusive to persons with disabilities. They have highly trained counselors that can handle sessions with PWDs and I was reassured as I understood their detailed explanation, and their training manuals for counselors include disabled people as relevant type of counselees.  Their inclusive integrated counseling is implemented by all their partner groups around the world, and this is a glimmer of hope that women with disabilities will be served on an equal basis with others through IPPF’s mindful initiatives.  Additionally, when Fiji reported in a plenary session on their advocacy work on SRHR, there was attention given to persons with disabilities.

 W-DARE was given a slot in the parallel sessions but few participants joined.  And this was the only session focusing on disability issues concerning SRHR. In this big conference I would have  hoped to see discussion of more issues related to SRHR and persons with disability, such as how to develop inclusive programs, how to use disability lenses in framing policies and a lot more topics. After the discussion, Women’s Global Network On Reproductive Rights pledged to look at the SRHR issues for women with disability and integrate these in to their existing endeavors. 

In conclusion I suggest there is a need to:

  • Increase invitations and participation of disabled people in mainstreamed conferences and consultations. This will be a constant reminder of the importance of inclusion of disabled community in designing structures and systems for advancement.
  • Strengthen disability awareness campaign in all aspects particularly in international gatherings to make sure that it will function as an avenue to air out issues and orient people about differently abled population.
  • Organizers must widen speaking opportunities for disability groups to ensure that their advocacies and crusades are heard and be given attention by government and other appropriate agencies.

In all keynote speeches and parallel session lectures, I can count on one hand how many times disabled people were considered in plans of action and in progressing resolutions for positive developments locally and in Asia. It is clear that there is still a way to go to ensure that sexual and reproductive health and rights work is inclusive of persons with disability. Most people I encountered at the conference perceive persons with disability as asexual human beings and a very special population that must be excluded from the mainstream.  Disabled leaders must not stop marching for equality and an inclusive society, especially because we know that women with disabilities are more vulnerable to domestic violence and sexual abuse, and experience poor reproductive health care.

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