WGNRR was born out of fire: the fire of anger about the abuse and suffering of women and the fire of passion to join hands to change women’s lives globally…”
–Loes Keysers, Founding Member
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the feminist movement and the women’s health movement came into its own. Women the world over began to agitate for their rights, pushing for their right to freedom of choice. It was in such a revolutionary context that the International Contraception, Abortion and Sterilisation Campaign (ICASC) held the fourth International Women and Health Meeting (IWHM) in 1984, which was themed, “No to Population Control… Women Decide!”
It was at this international conference, attended by women from across the globe, that it became clear that reproductive issues affect all women, and that global solidarity was essential. It recognised and appreciated not just the similarities, but the differences between the many groups of women across the globe and within their communities.
The grave import and urgency of the myriad issues faced by women and the danger to the realisation of their rights saw the formation of several important networks that still exist today, such as the Latin American Women and Health Network, and Women Living Under Muslim Laws. It was at this conference and in such an atmosphere that the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights was formed, bringing together reproductive rights advocates and activists and ensuring that these pressing issues were given a strong, collective voice of advocacy.
With such a strong start to the network, WGNRR continued to build momentum in the women’s health movement via its Call for Action (C4A) campaigns. The concept of the C4A campaigns was first articulated in 1987 at yet another IWHM conference. It was there that May 28th was decided upon as the International Day of Action for Women’s Health.
The first C4A campaign on Maternal Mortality and Morbidity was coordinated by WGNRR in cooperation with the Latin America and Caribbean Women’s Health Network. The Campaign was successful with several regions and member organisations undertaking activities and involving themselves. By 1990, it was evident by the increasing amount of membership participation, that the C4A was an important campaigning tool and clearly spoke of the pertinent issues.
1993 was a landmark year in WGNRR’s colourful history. The International Conference “Reinforcing Reproductive Rights”, held in Madras; India was monumental for the SRHR movement. The concepts of sexuality, sexual rights, reproductive rights and the health frameworks were vociferously debated upon. Despite the diverging opinions, the SRHR activists all agreed that self-determination was the basic cornerstone of the entire movement, especially keeping in mind the impending threat of the population control theories. At the conference, WGNRR reiterated this idea and still holds this concept central to all its work. The Madras Conference, still referred to today, was monumental for the issues it addressed, but also because it allowed SRHR activists to come together and strategise for the upcoming Cairo and Beijing Conferences.
1993 was also the year WGNRR clearly tackled and advocated for the right of access to safe, legal abortion. The campaign was well received and saw much participation from the members. This was an especially important campaign as it led up to WGNRR’s stance at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994.
WGNRR, ICPD and the Population Control Debate
The ICPD in 1994 was a watershed year for women’s health. WGNRR was part of a coalition- the Women’s Alliance- to ensure that women’s voices were heard and represented at the conference. that protested the population control theories that abounded at the time. WGNRR was also involved in workshops protesting the use of anti-fertility “vaccines”. WGNRR’s support of the ICPD’s inclusion of right to access of safe abortion was still tempered by its concern over the language and the fear of the misuse of such a document by proponents of coerced population control.
1995 was also an important year in the movement, as women’s health issues were increasingly linked to larger development problems and concerns. The1995 campaign on the feminisation of poverty was looking at women’s health in its larger context, and thus the organisation began to imbibe the social justice framework that still makes WGNRR’s work so clear-cut and distinct.
WGNRR was also closely involved in the development of the Programme of Action for the Women’s World Conference in Beijing that year. It was a wonderful opportunity to prove that women’s health issues could not be separated from other women’s rights concerns and needed to be seen in a holistic manner. This conference allowed WGNRR to solidify its position in the social justice framework, approaching SRHR concerns from a wide variety of spaces to form a concerted effort for full realisation.
WGNRR and the Post-ICPD World
After the Cairo Consensus, the interest and focus on reproductive rights began to wane. WGNRR, to counter this and to understand members’ concerns, held the 1996 Regional Members’ Meeting in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The meeting reflected the overall global trend of looking at women’s health as an interrelated issue and diverging into the interlinked realms of violence against women, endemic poverty of women, women in emergency and conflict situations; amongst others. This blurred the line between women’s groups working on what were earlier considered distinct issues, separate from one another.
WGNRR thus used this as a political strategy to bring together these divergent issues under a common SRHR lens. This set WGNRR apart as a grassroots-based, activist organisation, especially in light of the upcoming ICPD+5 meeting. Amid growing concerns that previously autonomous women’s SRHR organisations were becoming increasingly mainstream, WGNRR’s staunch autonomy and independence became an important attribute of the organisation.
As international documents and covenants began to touch on women’s issues and even peripherally reference women’s health concerns, WGNRR continued to present the alternative voice. Yet, it realised that progress was being made and that however imperfect, these were definite gains in the women’s health movement. As a result, WGNRR began to seek ways to create tools and frameworks for the international documents such as the Millennium Development Goals and the ICPD Programme of Action, so that WGNRR members were able to utilise them.
From 2003 to 2007, WGNRR collaborated with the People’s Health Movement (PHM) under the broad umbrella campaign of Women’s Access to Health. A long-running campaign, it focused on a sub-issue relating to SRHR and the larger social justice framework, in every campaign year.
As WGNRR’s work continued, it was felt that to remain relevant and true to its activist roots, WGNRR should begin to consider a move to the Global South. After much deliberation, it was decided that the WGNRR Coordination Office would be best placed to direct activities from the Global South. A call was sent out to the membership and the strongest offer was made by Likhaan, a grassroots based organisation in the Philippines. Thus, the decision to move the Coordination Office from Amsterdam to Manila was taken.
In 2007, the transition process was started and WGNRR officially began to operate from the Philippines, as well as from the Netherlands. It was not an easy process, but the staff, organisation and network pulled through admirably; with much support from the WGNRR Board. In 2009, WGNRR was finally said to have concluded its transition process.
WGNRR, Human Rights and the New Development Agenda
WGNRR enhanced its focus on SRHR as HR in 2010 and since that time has developed and disseminated advocacy tools using HR frameworks for SRHR issues. We have strengthened our relationships with the HR community and a member of the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (IWHRDIC). Most recently, WGNRR has played an active role in the final reviews of International Convention on Population and Development (ICPD) and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and participated in the global consultations for the new development agenda (NDA).
The rest, as they say, is her story.