Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are under attack or restricted in many parts of the world, impeding progress toward achieving gender equality.
Laws, lack of funding, limited resources due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and financial barriers all stand in the way of women and girls’ ability to access the health care and resources they need to thrive. When a woman lacks sexual education, access to family planning, and the right to live free of violence, she misses out on the opportunity to receive an education, work, and enjoy her life.
The United Nations’ International Day of the Girl Child on Oct. 11 is an opportunity to listen to and pledge to help meet the health demands of girls worldwide.
Global Citizen spoke to US-based reproductive justice advocate Donya Nasser about the pressing need to support reproductive rights globally.
Nasser currently serves on the board of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, an organization committed to delivering sexual and reproductive health care services around the world, and to fighting for sexual and reproductive rights. She was also the 2015-2016 US Youth Observer to the United Nations, a 2019 US Gender Equality Youth Delegate to the G7 Summit, and a 2019 winner of the 120 Under 40 — recognized as a young family planning champion by the Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Global Citizen: What do you see right now as the biggest threat against SRHR?
Donya Nasser: If you're wealthy, then you're able to access these resources because you have the funding to be able to go anywhere to access them. When governments crack down and either reduce or eliminate funding, it impacts the most impoverished women and girls. We don't think long-term, but then how many women and girls are not able to access education and contribute to the economy?
Women and girls’ bodies became political. This has become an ideological issue. As countries become more partisan, as countries become more ideological on each side, women's bodies are used as a pawn in this war between two parties or three parties.
Everyone needs SRHR — it's fundamental to our being. But when it becomes a women-only issue, then it becomes a political issue.
It's almost like the COVID-19 vaccine. We've transformed this health issue into a political issue. That analogy can be applied to SRHR. One side believes that girls shouldn't have access to contraception because that means that they will just want to have sex outside of marriage. and they're meant to have babies and so they shouldn't use condoms, etc. And then the other side believes in the freedom of a woman to choose and have autonomy over her own body. It's become this politicized issue almost everywhere.
What would you say are the biggest barriers to sexual health and reproductive health rights for girls living in poverty?
A shift globally toward more conservative governments that are cracking down on access to reproductive health services. What people don't really realize is that the politics in the US really send ripples all around the world, and we saw that through the Global Gag Rule. What we decide here in this country affects the reproductive health of millions of women and girls around the world. It was basically trying to use funding to be able to determine what women and girls can access globally.
This impacts a woman's trajectory — her entire life — if she has an unwanted pregnancy. It's her body. This is an equity issue. These laws are impacting the most vulnerable women and girls, and those are the girls that we want to uplift with education, with awareness, with economic opportunities. And at the base, we're denying them the fundamental thing that allows them to access all of these things, which is autonomy over their own bodies. This is an everyone issue. This is in everyone's right. But in reality, this impacts the most vulnerable, the most impoverished people in our societies.
You recently wrote a piece about how the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan is impacting women and girls’ access to sexual and reproductive health. What is at risk when these services are limited during a crisis or conflict?
They don't have access to control their futures anymore. If you get pregnant or if you have an unintended pregnancy, then how will you continue to go to school? In the West, we have so many mothers that go to school while pregnant, but in the East and in many countries, including Afghanistan, if you're pregnant, you have to stay home and watch your children; that's your traditional role.
What can everyday people do to promote SRHR in their communities?
Vote, because voting translates into decision-making. It's easy to feel marginalized by your government as a young person and feel that your vote doesn't count, but it does. These politicians everywhere are making decisions about women’s and girls’ bodies. And so, we need to make decisions about who's making those decisions, and that's in our hands.
Just a week ago, I was at a rally — there were rallies everywhere around the world for sexual and reproductive health rights. It doesn't seem like an easy way to make a huge difference, but those things do. They put pressure on the government and make it known that the people are incredibly concerned and believe that we can make a difference.
Social media, especially for Gen Z, is incredibly important and it's becoming more accessible and is also a way to equalize folks’ access to information. Social media is a great way to be able to advocate. If you're able to make a donation [to an organization] or if you're able to volunteer at a local clinic, great. But if you're not able to do any of these things, share information, sign petitions online, and tweet.
Can you just give a few examples of what full access to SRHR looks like in a gender-equal world?
Being able to access everything you need at any point. Having something relatively close to you, whether that be a clinic or a doctor's office.
Maybe having contraception for six months or a year at a time. So, if you're working, if you’re a student, if you have to travel far, you're able to have these services for quite a bit of time.
For you not to have to hide your face before going to a clinic. To have the freedom of someone not taking a photo and putting it online and having it circulate. To not have to be escorted into a clinic because of the protesters outside. To not have to have an unsafe abortion and risk your life because it's illegal in your country.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and length.