Voices From the Frontlines: Advocacy and Action for Reproductive Health Worldwide

Session recap by Nancy Gomes, Digital Media Coordinator

As we kicked off Capitol Hill Days 2021, we were grateful to have three fierce sexual and reproductive health and rights advocates join us for our first panel, “Voices From the Frontlines: Advocacy and Action for Reproductive Health Worldwide.” They talked with us about how they stayed committed to expanding health care access for their communities under the deadly Global Gag Rule during the last presidential administration.

We had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng (Dr. T), the first South African woman to hold the position of UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health; the author of the book A Guide to Sexual Health and Pleasure; and a tireless advocate for reproductive health and justice for people across the globe.

Our second speaker, Sandra Casteñeda, whose background and current positions include lawyer, human rights and feminism activist, and General Coordinator of Red de Salud, joined us to speak on her experience fighting on the frontlines in South America to combat the obstacles and challenges caused by the Global Gag Rule.

Last but certainly not least, we were ecstatic to introduce Dr. Michelle Dubón, sexual and reproductive health advocate and Medical Director of WINGS Guatemala. She spoke with us about the implications of restrictive abortion policies on patients seeking family planning care and how the expansion of the Global Gag Rule under Trump affected other health services that made providing care difficult.

Diving into the conversation, we asked our panelists about their motivations for doing this type of work and about what keeps them going even when the going gets tough. From discussing the suffering patients have endured (and continue to endure) to the broader implications of the Global Gag Rule since Trump’s expansion of the policy, there was shock amongst our event participants to discover just how bad this policy has been for women worldwide. Since the policy (and its expansion) was implemented in 2017, it affected funding for work unrelated to family planning, including projects related to HIV/AIDS, nutrition, malaria, water and sanitation, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases. Our panelists spoke on the type of vulnerable populations this affects as well, including women, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and more. The overall message was that this work is not easy and that it is far from being finished. However, our panelists were quite emphatic that the fight is not only crucial, but mandatory for the progress of gender equality and reproductive justice. We were particularly inspired by this quote from Dr. T: “I don’t need extra motivation because what other motivation do you need other than to protect and affirm people’s rights to having safe abortions?”

And we couldn’t agree more—protecting reproductive freedom and resisting attacks on comprehensive reproductive health care is why we created the #Fight4HER campaign in the first place.

“What do you see as top priorities for expanding access to quality reproductive health care to communities where you work?” was another question that was asked during the panel, which allowed speakers to cover how they want the recovery process to look in the aftermath of the Global Gag Rule and what expanding access to care means for their communities. In South Africa, Dr. T discussed her belief that politicians and local leaders should be held accountable for the corrupt nature of political proceedings on the issues of health and rights:

“There’s a lack of accountability on states to incorporate SRHR services as essential. That’s why in many communities, there is a distrust amongst political entities. There is corruption in the public sector that’s led to negative health outcomes.”

Similarly in Guatemala, Dr. Michelle Dubón wants to see the public sector be more accessible and well funded, since so many people count on the public sector to provide them with quality health care. “There are so many people living in extreme poverty, and it’s important that there’s financial support so clinics can expand their services.”

U.S. policies like the Global Gag Rule and the Helms Amendment have made it more difficult for our panelists to make accessibility of services permanent for their respective countries. They have seen their clinics, NGOs, and patients suffer tremendously due to the expansion of the policy. They’ve had to make accommodations that have reduced the number of patients they can serve, the quality of care they’re able to give, and the array of services they can provide. Dr. Michelle Dubón touched on the COVID-19 vaccination process for people in Guatemala and how efforts were quashed by the expansion of the Global Gag Rule. Developing countries are being forgotten in the fight against the virus, and she exposed the lack of care western nations are providing countries such as Guatemala, stating that “developing countries need and deserve vaccines, too.”

All three panelists described feeling silenced by the Global Gag Rule, and though President Biden has repealed the policy for now, fear within the community that this policy will come back into play with a future president is not unwarranted. That’s why we are leading the charge  pass the Global HER Act, a bill that would provide a permanent congressional repeal of the Global Gag Rule.

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