My perspective on sexual reproductive health rights changed forever in 2011 when I visited a small village in the Indian state of Assam. This visit served as a turning point in my life. In an interaction with the local community, I met a young girl whose name was Roshni. Young Roshni was forced to give up school. When I asked her father why she was forced to leave school, he replied, “In our community we do not send girls to school when they start menstruating as it’s a curse”. I was shocked and surprised to see myths and taboos surrounding menstruation, which were affecting women and girls’ access to education, health facilities and economic independence. Meeting this young girl Roshni gave me a different perspective on gender roles.
Not long after, I started the ROSHNI Foundation, an organisation that works on Sexual Reproductive and Health Rights (SRHR), gender equality and family planning. Additionally, it aims to develop educators’ critical understanding as it helps participants to link issues of gender, sexuality, reproductive health and development with the larger structural and systemic issues like patriarchy, caste-class-religion-based discrimination and violence, globalisation and economic changes, nationalism and peace building. My work focuses on enabling educators, people, communities and organisations to strengthen their capabilities to develop, implement and maintain effective Mental Health Matters (MHM), Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), Gender Equality, Family Planning and Peacebuilding initiatives in the community.
The first big opportunity for me to advance gender equality and the health, rights, and wellbeing of girls and women in their communities across the globe came when I was elected as executive member and focal point for sexual reproductive health rights at CYGEN. CYGEN helped me to build and work with a network of young people from across the Commonwealth who collaborate and share good practice when it comes to gender equality and SRHR.
My induction as a Young Leader at Women Deliver has provided me with the opportunity to advance the work I do with CYGEN and the ROSHNI Foundation. Women Deliver has made sure that Young Leaders are given access to structured coursework enabling young people to enact change and deliver for girls and women. These two 10-week intensive e-courses that focused on gender equality, sexual and reproductive health and rights, advocacy and communications, project design, and proposal development.
My next stop was the Women Deliver 2019 Conference in Vancouver, which focused on the theme of Power, and how can it drive Progress and Change. It served as a catalyst for advocates working to achieve a more gender equal world. The conference gave pragmatic solutions and engaged a broad spectrum of voices across the globe. It focused on several issues from health, nutrition, education, economic and political empowerment to human rights, good governance, and girls and women’s agency and equality.
Women Deliver 2019 started with pre-conferences, which were highly interactive and gave opportunities to exchange best practices. The plenary session was memorable and provocative due to presence of world leaders, influencers, innovators, and change-makers. It was about not only speeches and presentations but WD2019 made sure it was engaging and led to dialogue that drives the agenda forward.
Each day there were concurrent sessions and workshops with moderated discussions. The interactive workshops allowed participants to acquire knowledge about solutions and impact, with expert panellists sharing experiences, opinions, and insights. The most wonderful part of the conference was the ‘fuelling station’ - an exhibition hall unlike anything I had ever seen before. From 300+ booths highlighting the work of different organisations to various stages and displays.
The Youth Zone was the centre attraction - a space dedicated to all young people at WD2019. It paved the way for intergenerational dialogue and idea sharing. Speakers spoke from the same platform, which were ted-talk style presentations that challenge attendees to think and learn. Young people also got an opportunity at the social enterprise pitch which was a live competition featuring outstanding social entrepreneurs. The digital poster session was an opportunity for young people to share development solutions with an international audience.
‘Appy Hour’ helped us to experience first-hand mobile apps with the potential to change the world for girls and women. In addition, we also witnessed Film Festival, which was creative and outstanding, three days of screenings based on gender equality. SRHR added another dimension of inspiration to our conference experience. The Culture Night surely was a special evening with facilitated dialogues, entertainment and gave us the opportunity to witness the rich culture of Canada.
The conference saw some historic and innovative investments to support women’s rights organisations and movements to advance gender equality, including the Government of Canada’s commitment to raise its funding to reach $1.4 billion annually, starting in 2023, to support women and girls’ health around the world. A ten-year commitment, this historic investment will support sexual and reproductive health rights and maternal, new-born, and child health – with $700 million of the annual investment dedicated to sexual and reproductive health rights, as of 2023. The Government of Canada also announced its intention to work with the Equality Fund to establish an innovative global platform to mobilise unprecedented levels of resources for women’s rights organisations and movements in developing countries.
CYGEN and the Royal Commonwealth Society, which have been working together intergenerationally to end gender-based discrimination for all, and empowering youth advocates to champion gender equality and SRHR, had strong representation at Women Deliver 2019. Jacob Thomas, Coordinator of CYGEN, spoke on a panel on the topic ‘Understanding the Gender Equality Movement: Progress and Pitfalls’. Christine Alfons, Child Early and Forced Marriage Executive Lead was also at WD 2019 and spoke on a panel about ending FGM. Former CYGEN Coordinator Sarah Soysa spoke at session on the topic ‘The Gendered Experience of Youth Leadership in SRHR: Addressing the Disequilibrium’. Further, Ola Oluwa Abagun, CYGEN Member, spoke on the panel, ‘Intergenerational Dialogues – Bridging movements for gender transformative education’.
On the side-lines of WD2019, Helen Jones MBE, Head of Programmes and Youth and Casandra Boruzescu from the Royal Commonwealth Society, the Equality & Justice Alliance (EJA) and the Secretariat of the Commonwealth Youth Gender and Equality Network (CYGEN) met over a working lunch hosted by the British Consulate General in Vancouver. Women Deliver 2019 concluded by enabling the gender equality advocates across the world to re-energize and recommit themselves to sustainable development goals.
For me as Executive Member and focal point of SRHR at CYGEN it was a great learning experience to be at Women Deliver 2019 as a Young Leader.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.