Monday, January 20, 2014

A timely conference

published on January 11, 2014, Manila Standard Today

The 7th Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights will be held at the PICC from January 21 to 24. More than 2,000 participants from Asia-Pacific countries – including international development organizations, parliamentarians and other health officials, and civil society groups – will be in attendance.

The conduct of such a conference here is timely and significant for many reasons. First, the reckoning period for the Millennium Development Goals, a set of time-bound, measureable goals pertaining to development and poverty reduction, is next year. Essentially, the objective is to halve poverty from its 1990 level. Universal access to education, decrease in child mortality, gender equality, improvement in maternal health, the combat of diseases like HIV/ AIDS and malaria, environmental sustainability, and the emergence of a global development partnership are among these goals.

The progress so far has been uneven, with the Philippines attaining more success in some goals than in others. A more comprehensive report on the country’s progress can be found at the UNDP Web site, http://www.undp.org/content/philippines/en/home/mdgoverview.html .

Zeroing in on maternal health, we have already passed the Reproductive Health Law in December 2012 after more than a decade of debates and lobbying. Unfortunately, there is a status quo ante order on the law’s implementation because the law’s constitutionality has been questioned by some church-based groups and individuals before the Supreme Court.

It is not known when the High Court would decide with finality on the matter. The issue has been greatly divisive and has been muddled with the issue of pork barrel, but the need for it remains whatever its critics think they know. Filipinos need to arm themselves with knowledge about their options so they can make decisions based on their beliefs and circumstances.

The HIV and AIDS numbers are also not very encouraging. Figures from the Philippine National AIDS Council show that the year 2013 was the year when the highest number of new HIV and AIDS cases were reported, peaking at 491 new cases for the month of October alone. The December 2013 figures aren’t in yet, but already 2013 was a banner year with 4,456 new cases. For the entire 12 months of 2012, there
were 3,338 new cases.

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The conference will consolidate stories of best practices, lessons learned and unique/common challenges in issues of sexual and reproductive health among participating countries.  The roles and the accountability of different stakeholders will be analyzed, as will be the gains and failures of efforts for diverse population segments.

Parallel sessions will cover maternal, neonatal child health and nutrition, family planning, the girl child, sexually transmissible infections, HIV and AIDS, reproductive health cancers, and violence against women.

Aside from these, there will also be sessions on male involvement, integrated approach for information and service delivery, reproductive mental health, and the link among sexual and reproductive health and rights and sustainable development, food security, non-communicable diseases, and infectious diseases. Interfaith partnerships, collaboration among religious leaders, health officials, parliamentarians, government leaders and civil society and the role of social media will be discussed.

Programs targeting segments like the youth, the elderly, indigenous people, LGBTI, migrant workers, differently-abled people, people who inject drugs and people living with HIV and AIDS as well as internally displaced populations will be taken into consideration. This last item is relevant given that women displaced by conflict or disaster – as we see so painfully in Zamboanga and Eastern Visayas, among others – will continue to need reproductive health services.

Virgina Benosa-Llorin, who used to be with the Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development, was a presenter and session chair during the 6th conference held in Yogyakarta, Indonesia in 2011. She talked about her organization’s experience in forging partnerships with the media in order to make RH a household issue for Filipinos, such that drivers and vendors became knowledgeable about it. Public awareness is indeed a strong factor in building clamor for the law. From the ensuing discussion, it became apparent that “religion was and still is a very strong factor against the campaign.”

This year, she expects the conference to center on the Millennium Development Goals and hopes that participants will be able to exchange stories and help each other catch up in the areas in which they are lagging behind.

“We, who represent people from different walks of life, different forms of sexuality, and including a wide range of religious and political beliefs, claim respect for our own situations, and promise to respect our fellow citizens’ situations.” This is a quote from the Yogyakarta Declaration from two years ago, and it still rings true today.

Only with  respect can we consider that others are also entitled to the same rights and privileges as we are despite the fact that we may be different. Only with respect can we hold our ground against bigots and moralists who want to keep poor, disempowered segments of the population in the dark instead of enabling them to claim responsibility for their future and their quality of life.

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