‘We Advocated for Women’s Movements to be at the Table’

 How history influences women’s health advocacy

How does the past tie into current health policy? At a time when women’s health and reproductive rights are being debated globally, it is important to examine how historic policies impact the world today.

In the latest episode of the Global Health Matters podcast, host Garry Aslanyan spoke with two sexual and reproductive health advocates.

Carmen Barroso, a lifetime advocate, researcher and implementer for sexual and reproductive health, talked about the importance of using history as a tool for current activists. “I think it’s crucial that current and future leaders look at history and learn the lessons, both from the mistakes and from what was achieved,” Barroso said. “What we’ve learned from sexual and reproductive health in the past is fundamental because it’s an area that always faced a lot of opposition.”

Now 78 years old, Barroso has worked with many campaigns and organizations throughout her life. In 1990, Barroso became Director of the Population and Reproductive Health Program of the MacArthur Foundation, where she provided support for women’s organizations in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Although retired now, she still participates in advocacy work.

Dakshitha Wickremarathne agreed on the great significance of past activists’ work, like Barroso, on the current public health climate. “When you look particularly at sexual and reproductive health and rights, there are a lot of old challenges historically coming up in our conversations which are also currently relevant,” Wickremarathne said.

Wickremarathne is a senior technical lead overseeing the implementation of FP2030’s Asia Pacific Hub at the UN Foundation, a global movement working to advance access to reproductive health services.

Aslanyan brought up the value of certain policies over the past few decades, specifically the Alma-Ata Declaration of 1978 and the 1994 Cairo Conference.

Both Barroso and Wickremarathne stressed the impact of the conferences on shaping the way sexual and reproductive health issues are framed — not just as a medical issue, but as a human rights issue.

“Women then became right-holders,” Barroso said. “They were no longer seen as just the uterus. They were human beings with multiple needs, responsibilities and rights. They had the right to decide.”

Policy is not the only influence on women’s health rights. Social factors change constantly, and it is important to look at surrounding issues in relation to sexual and reproductive health. “I think many other social movements and external factors, such as the racial justice movement, LGBTIQ rights movement, have also influenced the way we look at health,” Wickremarathne explained. “Not just from a very siloed approach, but from a very inclusive and intersectional approach.”

While some factors have remained prevalent throughout recent history, such as funding for sexual and reproductive health services, Wickremarathne also brought up facets unique to today which impact sexual and reproductive health policy, such as climate change, migration and refugee crises and technological and digital advances.

“So within this context, with all the old and new challenges, there is a lot for us to learn from the historical context and events and influences of global health,” Wickremarathne noted.

Although there is still a great deal of work to be done in women’s health rights, Barroso feels encouraged by how far the world has come in the past few decades. “If we only see the tremendous obstacles that are real and continue to exist, we lose perspective and we lose hope, and without hope, we don’t do anything.”

Read about and listen to more episodes on Health Policy Watch.

This article is part of our TDR Supported Series.

Image Credits: TDR.

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