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Realizing Sexual & Reproductive Rights: CSW 2017

On August 17, 2017, EngenderHealth hosted a panel discussion in conjunction with the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). The theme for this year’s CSW centered on “women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work.” EngenderHealth convened five leaders in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) to discuss the links between SRHR and economic empowerment. The panel was moderated by EngenderHealth’s Director of Policy and Advocacy, Mina Barling, and featured the following speakers: 

Dr. Yetnayet Asfaw Demessie, Vice President, Evidence, Impact and Quality, EngenderHealth
Dr. Wilson Imongan, Rise Up Champion and Deputy Executive Director, Women's Health and Action Research Center, Nigeria
Shelley Lees, Senior Lecturer in Anthropology of Gender, Violence and HIV, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine 
Nakita Shavers, Youth Champion, Rise Up

CSW panel discussion

A Recap of the Panel Discussion

Investing in women’s economic empowerment is an essential aspect of encouraging sustainable development and growth, as well as in creating equitable societies. According to the International Center for Research on Women, economic empowerment translates to: 1) a woman’s ability to succeed and advance economically, and 2) a woman’s power to make and act on economic decisions.

As has been noted by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, economic empowerment centers on the premise of opportunity and agency. A woman’s ability to manage her own fertility thus is inextricably linked to her ability to engage in meaningful employment and in public life. Without access to a full range of sexual and reproductive health and rights, women are not able to enter into a place of economic empowerment.

Women’s control over their reproductive destiny is compromised by the recent reinstatement of the Mexico City Policy.[1] During the panel, Ms. Barling stated: “The current policy environment is the greatest challenge to advancing women’s status, and this is occurring during a time of great population growth: We are facing unprecedented numbers of girls entering into their reproductive years.” The impact of the Global Gag Rule is tremendous; a decrease in access to contraception is to be expected, resulting in more unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions.

Doctor Imongan

“Our primary concern and driving force is that we want every woman to be healthy and safe…,” said Dr. Imongan, “If the flow of [U.S. government] funds [is] reduced or stopped, we are guaranteed to see an increase in HIV, teen pregnancy, and maternal deaths” in Nigeria. Dr. Asfaw Demessie has seen firsthand the effect of policies like the Mexico City Policy. She recounted her experience as a medical student, treating young women and women who were dying from sepsis (a sometimes-fatal bacterial infection in a wound), the result of unsafe abortions.

Anthropologist and researcher Ms. Lees said, “Anything that weakens access to [sexual and reproductive health] services is detrimental to women if they cannot act on their agency.” Women stand the risk of getting caught in a continuous cycle of pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing—a costly yet preventable threat to economic gains made in developing nations.

Though the international spotlight has focused on developing countries, Ms. Shavers observed that “…what is happening in poor communities of color in the U.S. South mimics the stories we see in developing countries, and our programs are receiving the least amount of funding.” The U.S. government has not only turned its back on women and families globally, she added; it has turned its back on its own citizens.

“We have been through this before; we know what we need to do—and commit to doing it—or we risk the chance of women and girls being left behind,” said Ms. Barling. The panelists offered the following recommendations as efforts are scaled up:

Shelley Lees

  • We must recognize young people as agents of change, with innovative solutions. Their voices and ideas must be present at all times.—Nakita Shavers
  • We must identify champions in the government(s) who believe in the value of women and girls and who prioritize the needs and rights of women and girls.—Dr. Yetnayet Asfaw Demessie
  • We must include practitioners and community health workers in the discussions and advocacy focused on ensuring that women and girls get the services they need.—Dr. Wilson Imongan
  • We must capture the lived experiences of women and girls during times like these, so that our research is better informed and we can design interventions that are evidence-based and that prioritize women and girls.—Shelley Lees

EngenderHealth is an organization committed to leading these efforts, with a well-documented history in changing the lives of women and girls and their families. Our mission is to catalyze the value of women and girls, which is central to change. In the words of Ms. Shavers: “Now is not the time to be gagged, now is the time to speak.”



[1] On January 23, 2017, the Trump Administration reinstated the Mexico City Policy, also known as the Global Gag Rule. This policy forbids all non-U.S. international organizations that receive U.S. Government funding from either performing or “actively promoting” abortion, regardless of the source of their funding. Foreign organizations that even tell a woman that abortion is a legal option in her country, refer her to another provider, or advocate for abortion rights access with their own alternative resources are ineligible for U.S. funding.

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