Today I had a sexual awakening. Don’t worry, the rest of this post won’t read like the lyrics to a Marvin Gaye song. I’m talking about waking up to the concept of SRHR – sexual and reproductive health and rights.
At the 2011 International Women’s Summit (IWS), much of the program is dedicated to the work being done by women around the world to combat HIV, and other issues related to SRHR. I was excited to hear the stories of these leaders (who are often women younger than I am), but I didn’t see SRHR as relevant to me. After all, way back when I had braces some awkward male teaching graduate in Reeboks showed me how to put a condom on a banana. Sexual education? Tick! But yesterday I attended the session on SRHR at the World YWCA’s Young Women’s Leadership Dialogue and the young woman facilitating the session started asking a lot of questions I couldn’t answer. Sure you know how to not catch an STI when you have sex, but what about your emotional health? You know you have the right to say no, but what about your right to privacy – who finds out about your sex life? We’ve all sat through lectures on the seemingly endless negative consequences of sexual activity (unwanted pregnancies, scarlet letters, hairy palms), but how old were you when someone first gave you a positive message about your sexuality? Has that ever happened?
Hmm. Perhaps more relevant than I had thought.
Today I participated in the first plenaries and breakout sessions of the IWS. I caught another glimpse of the huge breadth of the issue of SRHR, and the diversity of contexts in which YWCAs all over the world engage with it. In 2009 my member association, YWCA Victoria celebrated as abortion was decriminalised in Victoria; a campaign in which they had advocated long and loud. Today one of the new friends I made was Vicky from Nigeria, a country where the YWCA is still fighting to secure basic sex education for young people. We heard the story of an eighteen year old girl from her region who had presented to hospital, desperately ill. Not long after, she died from an infection caused by an illegal abortion she had sought after missing her period. The doctor found she had not been pregnant.
Struck by this tragic waste, Vicky and I marveled at how these two stories could exist in the same world, let alone the same women’s organisation. And I realised that though it had taken me 27 years and a trip to Zurich to make me understand the relevance of SRHR to my life, for some women the relevance is visible from the moment they’re born, in the difference between life and death.
Heather Smith is a YWCA Victoria Member, social worker and all around fabulous lady! This post was first published on YWCA Victoria’s website.
Image taken from the Smithsonian Institution Archives and found on the Smithsonian photostream on Flickr