Holly Walker

Talking about sex in Turkey

by Holly Walker

While Parliament grapples with the deficit of vision in Budget 2012 at home, I’m in a gathering of hundreds of MPs from all around the world at the fifth International Parliamentarians Conference on the Implementation of the ICPD programme of action in Istanbul, Turkey, representing the NZ Parliamentarians’ Group on Population and Development (NZPPD) along with Labour MP Maryan Street.


That mouthful of a conference title doesn’t tell you much about the conference (and I had fun explaining it to my Air NZ flight crew on the way over when he asked where I was going), but essentially it’s about MPs coming together to discuss sexual and reproductive health and rights, the empowerment of women, and the links between these things and successful development.

I like the way the United Nations Population Fund expresses the mission: to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe, and every young person’s potential is fulfilled, and this from the conference organisers about our mission: “it is our role to ensure that the fight for gender equality does not fall from our attention in this crucial period of global development.”

Over two days we’ll discuss and debate global progress towards implementing the visionary programme of action from the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, which set a series of progressive and forward-looking goals to achieve gender equality, maternal health, improve access to information and services and end discrimination around the world by 2014. With that deadline obviously rapidly approaching this conference will take stock of what has been achieved, what has not, and feed into the process for setting a new global agenda for population and development after 2014.

There is a strong emphasis on the role and rights of young people at this conference, so it was exciting for me last night to meet a number of young parliamentarians (under 35) from around the world, many of whom are leading on these issues in their home governments and parliaments.

Other highlights from the first day included hearing from US Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who held nothing back when sharing the current challenges to women’s rights in US domestic politics, calling the controversial policies of House Republicans a “war on women”, and sharing the brilliant quote, which I will be repeating “we know that when women aren’t at the table, women are on the menu!”

Danish Development Minister Christian Friis Bach also addressed the conference this morning, and made the important link between sexual and reproductive health rights, and the rights of LGBTI people. Mr Bach concluded: “let’s get equal sexual rights for women and men regardless of whom they love, and what they think.”

The conference will produce a statement of commitment, which we will all sign, pledging MPs to take action domestically and internationally to advance sexual and reproductive health and gender equality. My fellow delegate Maryan Street is on the committee drafting this declaration. I hope it takes a progressive, ambitious, and strong stance on these key issues, and is followed up by real action, not just more talk!

Discussing international population and development issues, including the importance of universal access to contraception, as well as the important right of women to determine the number and spacing of her children, I can’t help but reflect on the NZ Government’s recent policy to link benefit receipt with long-term contraception.

It’s like Paula Bennett has taken a great, important idea (improved access to contraception) and twisted into something that could actually undermine a woman’s right to make decisions about her own family size, by putting her reproductive and sexual health rights in the hands of her WINZ case worker, instead of in her own hands and the hands of skilled health practitioners. While NZ takes a strong stance on these issues internationally we should continually reflect on our own policies at home and the messages these are sending.

Its also important to view the things in their proper context though! Internationally, an estimated 215 million women have an unmet need for contraception, which results in an estimated 53 million unwanted pregnancies, and causes 150,000 tragic, unnecessary maternal deaths each year. I reckon we could do something about that.

Published in Health & Wellbeing by Holly Walker on Fri, May 25th, 2012   

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