Blog 7: Comprehensive Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR): Canadian Organizations Leading the Way for Change
For nearly two decades, Canadian governments have made maternal health a central priority in development aid programs. The Muskoka Initiative (or Maternal, Newborn and Child Health – MNCH - Initiative) was a prominent set of commitments arising out of the G8 meeting held in Canada in 2010. Recognizing the particularly slow progress in meeting Millennium Development Goal 5, G8 countries promised to mobilize an additional $5 billion to reduce maternal and newborn mortality between 2010 and 2015.
Canada’s initial commitments to address maternal health, however, were limited. The early MNCH programs lacked the comprehensive sexual and reproductive health programming needed to address a range of women’s sexual health needs and gendered structural barriers. One of the most significant challenges of the MNCH Initiative wad the emphasis on ‘walking wombs’, for which women were essentialized for their biological roles in the birth of children, with little or no focus on the rights of women to make decisions about their bodies, including spacing or terminating pregnancies. Canada’s MNCH commitments, in fact, rarely referred to women at all, referring instead nearly exclusively to mothers. More on this can be found in this article: Walking Wombs: Making Sense of the Muskoka Initiative and the Emphasis on Motherhood in Canadian Foreign Policy
Other challenges identified in relation to the MNCH Initiative pointed to Canada’s limited efforts to support maternal health needs within Canada, particularly among underserved indigenous women – an analysis that we explore in greater detail here in this collection by Heather Smith and Claire Sjolander (2013), and the paternalistic focus on ‘saving’ women, denying them their agency, as outlined in this blog post from 2014.
Civil society organizations (CSOs) dedicated to the promotion of feminist principles, gender equality and women’s empowerment have long-argued for a more comprehensive approach to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) including, but not limited to, maternal health. A focus on SRHR means that individuals are able to make informed decisions about their reproductive lives and sexuality, that rights are at the heart of these programs, and that decision-making is free from violence, coercion or discrimination. Achieving SRHR will only happen when gender equality is central to the strategies employed.
The Canadian government, in 2019, responded to these calls for scaled-up SRHR commitments with an investment to the tune of $700 million a year by 2023. The comments are expected to continue over a ten-year period and is a component of Canada’s new $1.4 billion global health initiative. The 2019 commitments prioritize neglected and stigmatized areas of SRHR including comprehensive contraceptive care, safe and legal abortion, and adolescent SRHR (including comprehensive sexuality education) and support for advocacy.
Beyond the financial commitments, Canada has committed to the empowerment of 18 million women globally by increasing their access to critical, life-saving, and empowering services and information. As such, this approach applies a human right lens to sexuality and reproduction and covers four distinct and overlapping fields: sexual health, sexual rights, reproductive health and reproductive rights.
A coalition of Canadian organizations are working together to improve SRHR programming around the world through the Future Planning Initiative. The six Canadian organizations leading this charge call for programming that addresses several neglected areas in SRHR including: advocacy for SRHR, comprehensive contraceptive care, safe abortion care, adolescent SRHR, and comprehensive sexuality education.
Several priorities must remain at the centre of SRHR work to ensure that gender equality and feminist principles are at the heart of Canada’s programming, including: