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We Have not Galvanised: The International Conference on Population and Development in Nairobi – #ICPD25

By Shakira Choonara
on November 22, 2019

“In many conversations, youth mentioned that they will be approaching policy makers for funds to travel to Rwanda for the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA), many policy-makers and civil society organisations discussed their plans for ICASA, Beijing25, … We are moving from one meeting to the next, it seems. Not sure this is the agenda or pathway towards realising a post-ICPD agenda – asking to attend a conference versus ‘what do we want on behalf of our constituency from policy makers’ is where our conversations, thoughts and action need to be centred. I am calling a spade a spade.

I am not sure if we were truly galvanised, or galvanised enough and collectively, in the here and now at ICPD25, and reflecting on this and my role I must admit failure on this front too – or perhaps I’m still trying to crack the code with this. Finally, I wish everything was not so well planned but rather that we would have had more open, robust spaces similar to our organised chaos on this continent (Africa) to go beyond the ordinary.”

(Unscripted thoughts)

On a clear day from Johannesburg, if you’re lucky to have your online check-in work and if you manage to secure a window seat, you will see the majestic Kilimanjaro (and please note the melting ice cap) from your plane window en route to Nairobi, Kenya. No such luck this time, although I did revel at the sights of the rolling green hills as we were about to touch down to mark the 25th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD25).  Just as we were about to land a group of youth activists chanted “power, women power, power”, to which their airhost welcomed us saying, “power, power” causing a few passengers to remark you can see it’s going to be a women’s conference. Nonetheless such a super landing contrary to the ordinary, dull “keep your seatbelts fastened”.

I am not sure about everyone else, and perhaps those from South America and the likes had a much longer journey but to have a conference in Africa was actually pretty smooth sailing, visa and jet-lag wise, not to mention the cost efficiency as well (including free registration). Perhaps that’s the reason registration lines were totally packed – a few write-ups indicate we had a total of 9500 people, 170 countries at the conference – now that’s for sure a massive portfolio of social capital and power for action right there!

As I sat down for dinner with inspirational women from vastly different contexts, we relaxed and discussed our self-identity. I first spoke to Fahe Kerubo, a young panellist and activist from Kenya who was meant to be at the Women Deliver 2019 Conference earlier this year in Vancouver,  but could not make it due to visa issues (okay, I am banging on about these visas issues at conference. Fahe shared a story of “over the telephone”-violence; I have come to expect this in our field, so many of us have these stories). I also made notes everywhere as a facilitator to ensure I trained my closed mind, as Fahe’s introduction at the onset of meeting and to everyone was, “I am gender-conforming, my pronouns are them and they”. A bit of the dinner conversation also focused on how there was a religious segment displaying intolerance for ICPD and that a Bishop would also be hosting a parallel conference, apparently. Some reports indicated that people linked to ‘Agent Orange’ attended. Hmm, if only I had more time, I would have gone to the parallel conference just to keep tabs and see what we’re dealing with.

So, honestly, I wasn’t into the royals but there I was becoming my mom, binge-watching royal stuff when one of my Gurus (disclosure, for the ones among you with Netflix, I’m a SUITS addict ) introduced some diversity … wait, okay back to ICPD.

Crown Princess Mary of Denmark said something very profound, “Can you imagine if we had not had ICPD?”  I paused, as I sat there and said, yes, there are a lot of gaps remaining but we have come a really long way, beginning to map out the field of sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) from child marriages to access to contraception, and still not sure where to place the “sneaking up agenda” of male engagement on this terrain. Anyway, the point is, we have built an entire field, models of best practice at various levels, policies and programmes especially from civil society who have been implementing ICPD.  We do also have a lot more inclusion, e.g. Fahe’s. It is a different world indeed.

There were approximately 1200 new commitments made at the conference, now here’s a research idea ! (or well, someone needs to go through these commitments, there is potential for connecting, collaborating and importantly holding stakeholders to action; how, I am not quite sure yet). Financial commitments did not yet come from any African billionaire, yet maybe that’s the next step after hosting a conference there. Commitments came from a number of countries, and the European Commission, among others, but there’s still a huge financing gap for the so called ICPD-‘decade of delivery’. The private sector including the Children’s Investment Fund, Ford Foundation, World Vision and others committed to mobilising $8 billion. 

Moving on, not to brag or anything, okay fine, can’t hold back, I am going to brag (I am still pinching myself), I was entrusted with facilitating the Global Prevention Coalition (GPC) Meetings at ICPD, welcoming (not that I needed to do that, I binge watch all her interviews on YouTube too, and I guess I’m not the only one) Winnie Byanyima to the international stage; in this space, a shift and a welcome one from the incredible trouble she always causes in Davos at the World Economic Forum. The meetings were centred on the 2016 United Nations Political Declaration to End AIDS and the expiration of the GPC 2020. The targets we need to reach by the end of next year include (please read and read again until it sinks in);

  • Reduce new HIV infections to fewer than 500 000 globally.
  • Reduce AIDS-related deaths to fewer than 500 000 globally.
  • Eliminate HIV-related stigma and discrimination.

The statistics and all our discussions show we are absolutely off track at #ICPD25 and obviously for 2020. But, for me these are not just targets, as the jargon goes, but it is true, it is about our women and girls, where every four minutes three young women become infected with HIV, and the key question is the post-ICPD agenda?

Finally, I have a couple of recommendations. There is still more work to be done on the youth engagement front, youth are prepared to speak at conferences but not pushed enough or even held accountable to consider advocacy; are our spaces really open and if we are given the opportunity, are we really maximising attendance?

ICPD didn’t stand out as anything vastly different for me in comparison to other conferences because everything was planned. On my wish list as stated above, is that maybe what we needed was not speeches or addresses, but wide robust open spaces to push critical thinking, opinions and really re-create history and push the agenda for our modern times. There needs to be tailored support in mobilising and developing ‘advocacy asks’ ahead of a conference to stand out. That hasn’t happened just yet and continues to be a gap.

Also, a reminder before we move towards ICASA and the likes (note to self too) to read through all the commitments made – #ICPDChallenge?

On the personal front, other than having moments to squeeze in vlogs these days versus blogs, this is actually my first blog post since my father passed away a month ago and the first one, I am writing without brainstorming on it with him. Those who have dealt with the loss of a parent will know why I’m ending on this note.

*This post is in a personal capacity and not representative of any organisation.

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