By Naomi Kitur

There is need for a radical transformation of the way donor nations and philanthropies fund sexual and reproductive health justice and activism, experts and activists say.

At a virtual press briefing convened by Aspen Institute New Voices Fellowship, experts and activists, both of whom are fellows at the instsitute, said that they see a growing pattern of discrimination in the provision of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) globally that builds on generations of power imbalances.

“We hope that funders will be inspired to offer flexible, long-term and sustainable funding that can be used to challenge rights violations, secure respect for all human rights, promote cooperation to protect reproductive rights as well as coordinate social, political, legal and economic transformations towards achieving the highest standards of reproductive health,” said Kenyan doctor Stellah Bosire, Co-Executive Director of East African Sexual Health and Rights Initiative in Kenya and one of a group of activists.

In releasing their call to action, entitled Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Funding Best Practices: Guidelines for the Future, the Aspen fellows asked funders to show, “an appetite for risk and creativity” and to support “new, radical and out of the box ideas that would ordinarily be considered risky and removed from established models and approaches.”

“Funders are often afraid of taking risks, but by avoiding them, they lose the opportunity to support innovations at the community level that constitute new and better models of sexual and reproductive care,” said Mariana Assis, a Brazilian human rights lawyer and activist-researcher who works to improve access to abortion.

“In Brazil and in other countries, grassroots activists have come up with the revolutionary idea of self-managed abortion as a way of addressing criminalization, stigma, and socioeconomic barriers. And yet, ideas like this, in their first stage of development, are rarely funded precisely because of their innovative and groundbreaking character. That has to change.”

The urgency of the situation is starkly supported in the findings of a new global assessment, the first in a series that will report progress on sexual and reproductive rights to the UN Population Fund.

Released in mid-November, the paper concluded that COVID-19, “has exacerbated disparities based on gender, race, age, disability and other parameters.”

The authors also criticized governments and the international community, citing the “moral and particular failure” that is evident in “eroding services, lost financing and diminishing accountability for sexual and reproductive health and rights.”

The Aspen New Voices fellows said that some SRHR funders were already taking steps to shift power toward those with proximity to the communities they serve.

They also acknowledged the frustrations that might have led funders to make changes during the pandemic that negatively impacted the provision of services, but they urged funders to heed their guidance and correct “the power imbalance” that has resulted from ineffective top-down and close-minded approaches.

“The COVID pandemic has taught us that when pressed to the wall, governments will shift priorities, easily abandoning women’s reproductive rights,” Tabitha Saoyo, a Kenyan human rights lawyer said.

“Rape, a ruptured uterus, contractions, an ectopic pregnancy or even an unsafe abortion must be addressed safely and quickly. They cannot be made less important.”

“The time for a revolution in understanding the dated and colonial concept of ‘aid’ is long overdue,” said Tian Johnson, a queer African activist whose expertise includes white supremacy culture and decolonization of the development sector.

“Change needs to come, whether we are talking about the charity that Africa is being held to ransom currently. This includes things like waiting for donated vaccine doses, short-term project funding that seeks long-term impact without paying civil society organizations’ staff a living wage or the increasing global right-wing nationalist pushback against the sexual and reproductive rights and health justice gains we have fought so hard to achieve.”

He added: “Our dignity matters, our leadership matters, and donors must meet communities at our point of need and stand back and witness the return on investments we see when communities lead.”

To correct these dynamics and the legacy of colonial rule and white supremacy, the fellows made a series of recommendations.

The fellows recommended that funders: Remain open and flexible in funding approaches allowing groups quick turn around and interventions that are timely, fund long term and core costs, allowing for systemic and behavioral change that needs time, recognize the impact of colonisation and white supremacy culture on the current state of sexual and reproductive justice and rights globally, and also recognise the inherent power imbalance in the relationship between philanthropy/ funders/international nongovernmental organizations and Civil Society Organizations.