Delegates lament absence of PH health officials at Women Deliver conference
VANCOUVER, Canada – Four heads of state and advocates for youth, climate change, and health equity all shared the stage to kick off the Women Deliver 2019 Conference, the largest global conference on women's sexual health rights, gender equality, and cross-cutting issues like climate change and economic empowerment.
The focus of this year's Women Deliver conference is the need to redefine power structures to enact policy changes and fund investments that will sustain long-term gains on gender equality.
But Philippine delegates lamented that no representative from the country's health department was present at the conference.
Global health conferences like Women Deliver gather high-level health officials and policymakers with nongovernment agencies and civil society organizations, giving the latter opportunities to hold consultations, dialogues, and talks with government officials to push for policy and budget commitments needed to support reproductive health and family planning initiatives at the grassroots level.
Ben de Leon, president of the Forum for Family Planning, remembers attending the 2007 Women Deliver Conference in London.
"The [Department of Health] secretary was there and we were secured a commitment for a family planning budget even if the reproductive health law was not yet passed," he said.
Other former health secretaries who attended Women Deliver conferences in the past include Esperanza Cabral (Women Deliver 2010 in Washington, D.C.) and Enrique Ona (Women Deliver 2013 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia).
Chi Laigo Vallido, director for programs and advocacy at the Forum for Family Planning, said the absence of Philippine health officials at this event is a missed opportunity for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to hold these officials accountable.
"Our health budget has been cut. How does the government intend to fulfill its family planning commitments given this?"
Although lawmakers restored the funds that the budget department initially clipped from the health department's proposed 2019 budget, the Department of Health's (DOH) budget still decreased by P1.03 billion, from P99.60 billion in 2018 to P98.57 billion in 2019.
Ami Evangelista Swanepoel, executive director of Roots of Health – a reproductive health NGO based in Palawan – said that it is only at global gatherings that organizations like hers can have informal talks with DOH officials to discuss the reproductive health needs of women in remote areas outside of Manila.
Both Swanepoel and Vallido lamented that the absence of Philippine health officials at Women Deliver signifies that "this administration really doesn't care about women's rights."
A DOH official who asked that his identity be kept confidential because he is not authorized to speak on the issue said that travel to global health conferences like Women Deliver does not fall under authorized travel to be funded by the DOH.
However, foreign travel to global conferences tied to international health agreements entered into by the Philippines is authorized to be funded by the DOH.
Rappler reached out to the DOH to ask why there was no representative from the department at the Women Deliver 2019 Conference. There was no reply from the DOH as of this writing.
Philippine youth delegates present at the conference were also hoping to hold side dialogues with government officials to express their opposition to the lowering of the minimum age of criminal responsibility, which was approved by the House of Representatives last January.
"Youth leaders from the Philippines are uniting here at Women Deliver 2019 in calling the attention of our Senate to stop the passage of lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 9 or 12 years old. We believe that government should listen to the voices of young people,” said Ralph Ivan Samson, president of Y-PEER Pilipinas.
'Gender equality is under attack'
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau headed the panel that included Sahle Work-Zewde, the first female president of Ethiopia, Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta, Ghana President Nana Addo Dankwa, environmental activist Farwiza Farhan, youth advocate Natasha Mwansa, and UN High-Level Commissioner on Health Employment and Economic Growth Alaa Murabit.
Trudeau justified his claim of being a feminist by forming Canada's first gender-balanced cabinet in 2015 and continuing to push for feminist and gender equal government policies.
"Gender equality is hard because we have a world…that lays barriers for women. It requires real, consistent commitment to change," Trudeau said.
The conference comes at a time when women's reproductive health rights are coming under attack – from regressive abortion policies in the United States, to brazen sexism and misogyny displayed by heads of state.
"Progress can backslide. We're seeing it happen. Gender equality is under attack. I can only imagine how hard it is to be a feminist on the frontlines," Trudeau said.
"Individuals and interest groups are trying to roll back women's rights, and politicians are giving into the pressure, shamefully campaigning to undo women's hard won victories."
The four-day summit brings together thought leaders, heads of state, and global public health champions to galvanize political and financial investments in gender equality and the sexual reproductive health rights of women and girls.
The last Women Deliver Conference was held in 2016 in Copenhagen, Denmark. – Rappler.com
Ana P. Santos is covering the Women Deliver 2019 Conference in Vancouver, Canada, with support from Women Deliver.