Activists from Africa, Latin America, and Asia challenge donors to transform approach to funding sexual and reproductive health and justice

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Confronted with the impact of efforts to roll back rights under the cover of COVID-19 and committed to racial justice and decolonization of global public health,
Aspen Institute New Voices Fellows call for donors to take risks, prioritize locally-driven solutions, and protect frontline advocates

30 November 2021—At a virtual press briefing today, global health experts and activists — all current or senior fellows of the Aspen Institute New Voices Fellowship — called for a radical transformation of the way donor nations and philanthropies fund sexual and reproductive health justice and activism.

Recounting experiences echoed in a recent United Nations report, speakers at the press briefing said that they and their colleagues see a growing pattern of discrimination in the provision of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) globally that builds on generations of power imbalances. To correct these dynamics and the legacy of colonial rule and white supremacy, the fellows today released a series of recommendations to set the stage for a two-day virtual “Invisible No More” festival planned for December 2 and 3.

“The donors we have spoken to seem anxious to attend the event later this week and to learn more from us,” said Kenyan doctor Stellah Bosire, Co-Executive Director of East African Sexual Health and Rights Initiative in Kenya and one of a group of activists and experts who organized the virtual festival. “We’re grateful for their engagement so far, and hope that our experiences and the stories they hear will inspire them to offer flexible, long-term and sustainable funding that can be used to challenge rights violations, secure respect for all human rights, promote cooperation to protect reproductive rights as well as coordinate social, political, legal and economic transformations towards achieving the highest standards of reproductive health.”

In releasing their call to action, entitled Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) Funding Best Practices: Guidelines for the Future, the Aspen fellows are asking funders to show, “an appetite for risk and creativity” and to support “new, radical and out of the box ideas that would ordinarily be considered risky and removed from established models and approaches.”

“Funders are often afraid of taking risks, but by avoiding them, they lose the opportunity to support innovations at the community level that constitute new and better models of sexual and reproductive care,” said Mariana Assis, a Brazilian human rights lawyer and activist-researcher who works to improve access to abortion. “In Brazil and in other countries, grassroots activists have come up with the revolutionary idea of self-managed abortion as a way of addressing criminalization, stigma, and socioeconomic barriers. And yet, ideas like this, in their first stage of development, are rarely funded precisely because of their innovative and groundbreaking character. That has to change.”

The urgency of the situation is starkly supported in the findings of a new global assessment, the first in a series that will report progress on sexual and reproductive rights to the UN Population Fund.

Released in mid-November, the paper concluded that COVID-19, “has exacerbated disparities based on gender, race, age, disability and other parameters.” The authors also criticized governments and the international community, citing the “moral and particular failure” that is evident in “eroding services, lost financing and diminishing accountability for sexual and reproductive health and rights.”

The Aspen New Voices fellows said some SRHR funders were already taking steps to shift power toward those with proximity to the communities they serve. This is a moment of important introspection, critical reflection and change across global philanthropy, and fellows said they were grateful for insights and lessons shared by allies including the organizations behind The Principles Project and the Co-Impact Fund.   

They also acknowledged the frustrations that might have led funders to make changes during the pandemic that negatively impacted the provision of services, but they urged funders to heed their guidance and correct “the power imbalance” that has resulted from ineffective top-down and close-minded approaches.

The fellows recommended that funders make decisions based on the “narratives, experiences, and knowledge of affected communities,” and avoid “tiresome barriers and bureaucratic loops and hoops in fund application processes.”

They also asked funders to support and help protect the wellbeing of frontline advocates, noting the grave threats to “the economic, physical and mental safety including depravation, discrimination, prosecution, and violence” of those championing sexual and gender equality and LGBTQ rights.

The fellows who planned the upcoming two-day festival are seeking to address the failings of the current system and to educate donors who fund and implement sexual and reproductive health services across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The event will feature the stories of those most affected by top-down policies linked to SRHR and services. The event is designed to introduce donors to home-grown solutions and to give affected communities a chance to share their wisdom and knowledge.

The organizers hope the exchanges with audiences attending virtually will be engaging, but Tian Johnson, a queer African activist, warned today that they also may be “somewhat uncomfortable.”

“The time for a revolution in understanding the dated and colonial concept of ‘aid’ is long overdue,” said Johnson, whose expertise includes white supremacy culture and decolonization of the development sector. “Change needs to come, whether we are talking about the charity that Africa is being held to ransom to currently. This includes things like waiting for donated vaccine doses, short-term project funding that seeks long-term impact without paying civil society organizations’ staff a living wage or the increasing global right-wing nationalist pushback against the sexual and reproductive rights and health justice gains we have fought so hard to achieve.”

“Our dignity matters, our leadership matters, and donors must meet communities at our point of need and stand back and witness the return on investments we see when communities lead,” Johnson said.

Looking ahead to the virtual event on 2 and 3 December, speakers at the press briefing said they are eager to enlist allies in a battle against powerful regressive forces, often sparked by religious fundamentalist  and neoliberal worldviews.   

Tabitha Saoyo, a Kenyan human rights lawyer, will present on this issue during the virtual festival. She will argue that funding for SRHR  services is an emergency that must be central to the future of women’s rights.

“The COVID pandemic has taught us that when pressed to the wall, governments will shift priorities, easily abandoning women’s reproductive rights,” Saoyo said. “Rape, a ruptured uterus, contractions, an ectopic pregnancy or even an unsafe abortion must be addressed safely and quickly. They cannot be made less important.”

Tlaleng Mofokeng, a doctor, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, advocate, activist, and champion for SRHR around the globe, will also speak at the festival.

“It’s through the control of women’s bodies, through the control of human sexuality, through the obsession with fertility rights and reproduction that colonialism actually then imbeds itself,” Mofokeng says. “Many of us can’t talk about how we will get to gender equality without talking about the root causes of that inequality. And for us, it starts with colonialism and patriarchal aggression, as well as, of course, racism, which are systems that enable each other.”


Additional Quotes

“Secual and reproductive health and rights funding in many African countries has a history of being driven by the fears of wealthy countries. This has caused a lot of harm and distrust. I hope more funders meaningfully reckon with this harmful legacy and shift to approaches that recognize African women’s rights to bodily autonomy as a worthy end in itself.”

  • Meti Bekele Nega, an advocate for evidence-informed policies on women’s rights in Ethiopia.

“Ensuring sexual and reproductive health and rights for everyone is the only way nations can achieve Sustainable Development Goals.”

  • Edinah Masiyiwa, Executive Director of a women’s rights organisation in Zimbabwe called Women’s Action Group