The Nairobi Summit: Driving Progress on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights [Video]

The year 1994 was historically remarkable. South Africa held its first multi-racial elections, and South Africans elected Nelson Mandela president, marking the end of the horrific era of Apartheid and ushering in an era of racial reconciliation. That same year, the world stood by during the 100 days of the Rwandan Genocide, a tragedy of immense scale and brutality, widely regarded as one of the worst failures of the international community in modern history. These landmark events still resonate today. Historians, the international community, human rights leaders, and activists draw important lessons from both.

While these events were unfolding, I was in graduate school in public health, preparing to join a community of change makers around the world. I would soon begin a career in international sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). As I watched the historical events of 1994 in real time, I had no idea that my career would take me to more than two dozen countries over the next 25 years, including South Africa and Rwanda.

As a graduate student in 1994, I watched with great interest the news from the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), held in Cairo. It was at ICDP that 179 countries signed an agreement committing to improving women’s and children’s health. The agreement signaled global commitment to making important systematic changes that would improve people’s lives, including reducing maternal and child mortality; ensuring availability of sexual and reproductive health services, including contraception; and reducing female genital cutting, child marriage, and gender-based violence. The agreement also marked the first time that governments around the world collectively recognized a woman’s right to decide if and when to have children. That recognition was an important milestone in the reproductive rights movement that still has positive ripple effects today, which I see in my work with EngenderHealth.

Over the last 25 years, I have had the honor of working with colleagues around the world who fight to protect and expand human rights and to improve health outcomes for people in their communities, their countries, and everywhere. We will be among the many thousands of people who will watch closely and participate, either in-person or online, when leaders from all sectors gather later this year to mark the 25th anniversary of ICPD with a new summit focused on women’s health and rights. I look forward to representing EngenderHealth at the upcoming Nairobi Summit because I know it is more than an anniversary event. It’s an important time to make connections and commitments that will help change the future. While we have made much progress in the last 25 years, there is still work to do. The Summit will help drive an agenda focused on ensuring that all people have access to sexual and reproductive health services, which is essential if we are to reach universal health coverage. The Summit will focus attention on the financing and partnerships necessary to reach goals such as zero preventable maternal deaths, zero unmet need for modern contraceptives, zero gender-based violence, zero child marriages, and zero female genital mutilation.

We need new energy, fresh ideas, and creative approaches to accelerate our progress. EngenderHealth is committed to being a leader in the community that is driving that progress. Together, we can, and we must:

  • Reach the more than 200 million women who want to avoid pregnancy but are not using contraception. EngenderHealth’s programs in Africa and Asia ensure that women and men have access to reproductive health information and to a range of contraceptive methods, so that they can make free and informed choices about whether and which contraceptive to use.
  • Eliminate harmful practices, such as child marriage and female genital cutting. EngenderHealth is committed to engaging communities, and particularly youth, in spearheading these changes. We have recently heard powerful stories of youth in Ethiopia and India who gained knowledge from comprehensive sexual education programs we support in their communities that enabled them to step in on behalf of peers who were being subjected to child marriage. In Ethiopia, students spoke up for a 12-year-old girl in their school when she was abducted to be married. Together with the family and community leaders, they successfully intervened, stopped the marriage, and brought the girl home.
  • End gender-based violence. EngenderHealth’s approach to gender-based violence includes working with survivors to support their physical and mental health, and to help them get justice in court systems that are difficult to navigate. For example, in Malawi we work with female magistrates who staff mobile courts that go into communities rather than making survivors travel long distances at inconvenient times. We also work with traditional community leaders who want to identify and change harmful gender practices that may contribute to gender-based violence.
  • Advance gender equality. We approach our work with the belief that that we can advance gender equality both in and through our SRHR programming. We apply both gender and youth lenses to our work, and hold ourselves accountable by measuring our progress and by ensuring internal policies and practices that promote equity. With this approach, we are transforming ourselves as an organization, as well as the communities where we work, to be more gender equitable.

I look forward to joining partners from around the world who are committed to improving sexual and reproductive health and rights and advancing gender equality. Together we will make an important mark on history: In 2044, I am confident that we will look back and know that 2019 was a turning-point moment for women and girls around the world. That is why I join so many others in the march to Nairobi. That is what #IMarchFor.