Activists take part in a demonstration during a nationwide feminist strike on International Women's Day in San Salvador, El Salvador. Photo by: REUTERS / Jose Cabezas

NAIROBI — On Wednesday over 200 feminist organizations from over 50 countries released a call to action focused on advancing sexual and reproductive rights and gender justice that calls for a bolder approach to tackling these issues. It coincided with a major global United Nations conference on reproductive and sexual health held this week in Kenya.

The Nairobi Summit on ICPD25 is the 25th anniversary of the first International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo — where a document was created credited with shifting family planning from a top-down to a female-centered approach, focused on giving women and girls choices surrounding their reproductive and sexual health. The original program of action included discussion on safe abortions and providing sex education to adolescents — issues that have faced pushback by some governments and conservative groups.

“In more recent times an understanding of the role feminist organizing has played has faded, not because we're not there, but because lots of money has gone into these large programs, government programs, and it becomes institutionalized.”

— Françoise Girard, president, International Women's Health Coalition

“Though we’ve made significant progress since Cairo, for too many, the promise of ICPD remains unfulfilled,” said the authors of the call to action. “While we welcome the commitments made in Accelerating the Promise, we must go further and be bolder in our demands. The time is now to commit to a new agenda that recognizes intersecting forms of discrimination and offers actionable and sustainable solutions to achieve gender equality.”

The program of action that was originally crafted in 1994, considered visionary for its time, remains unfulfilled as progress in some areas has stalled, and in other cases actually reversed, according to summit participants.

Included in the call to action was for donors to provide adequate, sustained and flexible funding for feminist organizations. Devex sat down with Françoise Girard, president of the International Women's Health Coalition, on the need to re-integrate feminist organizations into global efforts to improve the sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls and women.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What are IWHC’s priority issues this week at the Nairobi Summit?  

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A major U.N. reproductive and sexual health conference is facing backlash from faith communities and conservative advocacy groups, illustrating some of the challenges global health practitioners face in working on these issues.  

We've been organizing with the women's movement to make sure we have a strong presence here. The Cairo conference, 25 years ago, was a paradigm-shifting conference. That was because the feminist movement brought the issues to the table — the issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights and the idea of putting women at the center of what used to be population-control programs. That came out of the global women's movement in both the north and south, together.

In more recent times an understanding of the role feminist organizing has played has faded, not because we're not there, but because lots of money has gone into these large programs, government programs, and it becomes institutionalized. There's a lack of institutional memory on the role of movements in keeping this agenda live.

“One of the principles in feminism is that you are accountable. You don’t do things on your own — you're always working in coalitions and accountable to the base.”

What’s the importance of re-integrating feminist organizations into efforts to improve the sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls and women globally?

One of the things we call for is for everyone to remind themselves of the role feminist groups played in pushing forward these bold ideas, which at the time were considered too extreme. But now we are here at a conference full of people who I don't think would call themselves members of feminist movements, but they're all endorsing these ideas. It’s powerful.

We were a little disappointed of the lack of recognition at this conference of the role feminist movements 25 years ago played. We want to make sure that this is highlighted. There is a need to fund feminist organizing. If donors want to keep seeing these bold, progressive ideas, they've got to fund the feminist movement.

Where should donors put their money in the feminist movement?

Multiyear, general operational support, not project support. Funding that allows women to organize, come together, hash out the issues, build coalitions and move agendas — not to implement projects. It is very different than what a lot of donors are doing right now, which is actually damaging movements.

Why do you think feminism has been left out of the conversation?

It’s a good question. I think a bit of it is due to the institutionalization of sexual and reproductive health and rights. There are a lot of big donors coming in with project funding and big programs. Of course, we need programs in areas like delivering contraceptives but that tends to push aside the mobilizing, organizing and activism.

Reproductive rights are in the Sustainable Development Goals not because governments saw the light but because the feminist movement organized to make it happen. We're always defending this agenda, always standing for it. But the big institutions don't necessarily want us at the table.

We're asking for things that are disruptive like transfers and transformations of power, as well as changing gender norms. We're saying different people need to be at the table, different voices need to be heard. As you can imagine, the forces that be don’t necessarily enjoy that.  

How could outcomes for girls and women be different if feminism was more integrated into sexual and reproductive health and rights?

It would mean better connections to the grassroots and to people on the ground. Feminist movements are very connected to their constituencies and communities. One of the principles in feminism is that you are accountable. You don’t do things on your own — you're always working in coalitions and accountable to the base. It would actually serve the programs and their quality because we'd actually hear from people rather than assume that we know better — with top-down approaches. It’s very powerful, it works and it doesn't cost much.

About the author

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    Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.