SheDecides youth advocates in Kenya who participated in the RHNK Conference 2019 youth caravan. Photo by: SheDecides Kenya

Today is World Population Day, and 25 years after the revolutionary International Conference on Population and Development took place in Cairo, the world is turning its attention to unfinished business.

At the end of March, I handed over the leadership of SheDecides to Naisola Likimani. One of my final, and hugely rewarding, tasks was to select the 25x25 — the 25 dynamic and diverse young leaders, from 25 different countries, all born in 1994 (the year of ICPD). Their energy and clear-sighted vision is inspiring, bringing verve and passion, as they demand the best for their generation’s future and honor and recommit to the vision laid out at ICPD 25 years ago.

The 25x25 are a powerful reminder that rage, optimism, and activism are crucial to defeat the policies of extremist hate. They underscore that we must work equally hard to maintain and build on the broader hope for “bodily autonomy” (if we speak in jargon) or, in more regular language, a world where SheDecides.

It is easy to tumble into hopelessness with so much grim news. The recent march of anti-abortion policies across the U.S. was described as “extremist hate that amounts to the torture of women” by the U.N.’s Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore. Yet globally, there is an equally strong and compelling force: the energy, optimism, and progressive politics of millions of young people from diverse backgrounds and countries whose passion, vision, and expectations of change can fire us up with hope. And that is why the role of the 25x25 in marking ICPD cannot be underestimated.

ICPD achieved consensus on a raft of key population issues: 179 countries committed to achieving universal education; reducing infant, child, and maternal mortality; and securing access to sexual and reproductive health services. ICPD birthed the sexual and reproductive health and rights movement, adding rights to services and providing a definition of SRHR that would not have looked out of place in the recent Guttmacher-Lancet Commission report. The discussions and program for action now guide the work of UNFPA, as well as the countries that made these commitments, making it so important to focus carefully on the unfinished business if we are to have any hope of achieving the SDGs or realizing the promise of ICPD.

As a global community, do we engage with access to safe abortion, as well as safer issues such as (so-called) family planning? Do we really focus as much on the rights of women and girls? Or default to health and services?

Lessons learned

In my two years co-creating and co-leading the team that supports the SheDecides global political movement, there were many challenges to get the focus right. Here are some of the lessons learned from those early days.

As the strategy emerged, champions debated whether the movement should focus principally on bad policies and laws emerging across the globe; or on the U.S., especially the global gag rule that had sparked the movement; or on access to safe abortion. The decision was clear. We needed to focus on what we want to achieve: a world where she decides. We couldn’t look back at the barriers that stand in our way and the naysayers that seek to limit our rights. 

As appalling as the global gag rule expansion is, a simple focus on that would avoid the equally awful laws and policies that must be changed in many other countries. Champions agreed never to lose sight of the urgent focus on safe abortion, and the related, highly politically charged urgency of comprehensive sexuality education. We strove to locate these in the broader optic of respect for our right to decide about everything we do with our bodies.

Part of the huge power of the two simple words “she decides” is that they steer away from the often toxic, rarely winnable, battle of words between those who define themselves as “pro-life or “pro-choice.” The resulting and magnificent SheDecides manifesto was carefully crafted based on quality research and with input from experts and political leaders from around the world, including a broad range of young people. 

A core strength of SheDecides is learning from other movements, notably the AIDS activist movement. I had worked in the AIDS movement since the mid-1980s — and that was a key reason I was asked to co-lead the startup team. A key component to making big change is to leverage creativity and the arts, using tactics that engage emotions and passions. SheDecides deliberately draws on the work of feminist artist Barbara Kruger, whose work formed part of 1960s pro-abortion activism. Her bold, unapologetic style serves the movement well.

The use of gritty, progressive arts is one of many ways in which young people’s vision is central. SheDecides is grounded in their energy and trusts their leadership; name another movement or organization whose chair is under 30. The movement aims to avoid tokenism and respect young people as the changemakers of now, and the future. And of course the exceptional range and diversity of political leadership that we attracted over the first few years was core to the success of SheDecides. These are bold women and men from all over the world who are brave, not afraid to live by their values, and focused on the future.

What’s next

Today we look at the achievements of ICPD and commit to achieving even more by the time the world gathers in Nairobi for the ICPD25 Summit in November. Equally important is to shine the spotlight on Beijing and next year’s 25th anniversary.

The Beijing Platform for Action took a broader look at gender equality. It reaffirmed the fundamental principle that the human rights of women and girls are an inalienable, integral, and indivisible part of universal human rights — promoting and protecting the fundamental freedoms of all women throughout their lifecycle. As SDG advocate Alaa Murabit stated at Women Deliver 2019: "If a young girl does not feel she has power over her own body, to go up to her and say, ‘well you should run for parliament,’ is ridiculous. It is disempowering at the most personal level.”

Rebekka van Roemburg — my co-lead at SheDecides in early 2017 — would urge us to create a new normal. We need to avoid being drawn into the horrors of a new normal where elderly American men decide what happens to half the world’s bodies.

Instead, let’s embrace the new normal of vibrant young people from all around the world who see the urgency of protecting the fundamental human rights of every person — no matter their gender — to decide what we do with our bodies. A #NewNormal where #SheDecides #WithoutQuestion. 

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Robin Gorna

    Robin Gorna is a writer, advocate, and strategist with a strong track record for leading effective action on AIDS and women's rights. She was the lead of SheDecides support team until March 2019 and formerly executive director for the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health and the International AIDS Society.