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Cow dung is no substitute for a sanitary towel, and other key lessons from Women Deliver 2013

Sarah Pyke from Amnesty's Demand Dignity campaign reports from Malaysia

Stepping off the plane at Kuala Lumpur International Aiport on an overcast Monday evening, I was met with a wall of humidity... and taxi drivers. "Women Deliver?," I was asked immediately. Like thousands of others, including Chelsea Clinton, Melinda Gates, Mandy Moore and a small but equally glamorous Amnesty International contingent, I made my way to Malaysia for the third Women Deliver conference, where talk was of the empowerment of girls and women, sexual and reproductive health and rights, gender equality and the new development agenda.

If you haven't been following #WD2013 or #WDLive and couldn’t be here yourself, here are five things you absolutely need to know about this busy and downright incredible global get-together.

My top five take-home highlights of Women Deliver 2013 (in reverse order):

5. Bouquets of condoms are nice, but they're only half the story
Don't get me wrong, the delivery of health services and all that makes them possible – state-of-the-art surgical instruments, say, or training for midwives - is hugely important, and the commitment and work showcased by a diverse range of international NGOs, grassroots organizations and service providers during the conference was awe-inspiring. And that's before we even get to the handcrafted and hand-painted condoms on display at the Malaysian Rubber Export Promotion Council stand, which genuinely help to demystify and de-stigmatize through humour and creativity something as potentially embarrassing as contraceptives. (They also had condoms shaped like sea-creatures. In a fish tank. With REAL FISH.) But as I heard during one of the human rights panels we co-organized with UNFPA, to whoops and applause from the audience, “We hear so much about maternal mortality and saving women - but now people are talking about rights!” (Gratifying then, that there was huge interest in Amnesty’s My Body My Rights campaign.)

4.  All syesmts can be cahelnlged (even language!)
On the third day of the conference we had some shocking news. Many of you will have been following the case of Beatriz, whose story made headlines recently. She is a 22-year-old from El Salvador, seriously ill, and now 26 weeks into a pregnancy that neither the foetus, nor Beatriz herself, is likely to survive. On 29 May, the Salvadoran Supreme Court again dashed the hopes of Beatriz and her supporters - among them hundreds of thousands of Amnesty International activists worldwide - when they refused her the life-saving treatment she so desperately needs because of the total ban on abortion that exists in the country. Instead, they left it to the doctors to decide whether to intervene medically. Subsequently, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights demanded that the Salvadoran government act immediately to provide Beatriz with treatment and her life is now firmly in the hands of the President and Minister of Health.* This is an urgent reminder that laws are not always systems to work within, but also need reforming. Only when health systems place individuals, and their rights, at the very centre of all decisions and processes that affect them will we have true accountability.

3. Silences, and chains, are for breaking
Over and over again, I heard how shame and stigma conspire to keep women and young people silent about violations of their sexual and reproductive rights, and from claiming their rights in the first place. One activist described how, during her school days in India, the pages of a textbook which dealt with menstruation were stapled together by her teacher. In some parts of Tanzania, girls are given so little information and practical help when their periods start that they resort to using cow dung instead of sanitary products. Denied access to crucial information or services, young people are not empowered to speak out, claim their rights or demand accountability from governments and others who fail to live up to their obligations.

But there are many activists and organizations out there who, while respecting culture and context fully, are committed to dismantling the “culture as camouflage” approach that so often distract when issues of tradition meet those of sexual and reproductive health and rights. They, like us, recognize rights as intrinsic, rather than something you are given if you are lucky. From evangelical Christians for human rights, to a campaign focusing on maternal health in the British Muslim community, there was a vibrant and progressive interfaith community at Women Deliver who can be powerful allies in pushing for change.

2. Young people's rights are human rights. And guess what, young people have a sexuality, too
Throughout Women Deliver it's been made very clear that young people are not a homogeneous group. They are a constituency to engage with, rather than treat as an “audience” or a “target”, and they will drive their own strategies for change and develop their own messages. It's equally clear that comprehensive sexuality education, which deals with things like relationships, behaviours, and orientations as well as biology, is a vital first step to empowerment for young people everywhere. Speakers on our Adolescents and Youth Sexual and Reproductive Rights panel made reference to the two key documents which assert the importance of comprehensive sexuality education for young people, 2012's Bali Youth Declaration and CPD45 resolution. It's ludicrous that we talk about contraception without first talking about sex education or sexuality, one speaker pointed out. Another commented that young women need access to education and employment as well as contraception and safe and legal abortion - it's not an either/or situation. As well as getting conference participants to sign our petition calling on world leaders to protect the sexual and reproductive rights of young people now and in future, we were lucky enough to have Amnesty youth activist Alma Ugarte Perez, from Mexico, on the group of Women Deliver 100 Young Leaders, where she did an amazing job mobilizing people to act in solidarity with Beatriz.

1. Where the real decisions will be made

Two international processes will become more than just good friends in the coming months, as the ICPD+20 review and post-2015 development agenda conversations continue to inform and mutually reinforce each other. Perhaps most importantly for Amnesty's influencing work as we look to the future is the vital role that sexual and reproductive health and rights advocates from a range of organizations worldwide, including us, will play in ensuring that these issues that we all care so passionately about will remain high on the global agenda. In a debate organized by Marie Stopes International we were warned of a dystopian future (in some places, sadly, a dystopian present) should the global health community neglect human rights, where surgeons are encouraged to carry out Caesareans without women's informed consent, and where women, financially rewarded for giving birth in hospitals, turn up with a newborn so new the placenta is yet to be delivered. Where we are misled by aggregated data, where governments and donors are not held to account, where sexual and reproductive health is delivered in a fragmented, piecemeal way, and discrimination goes unchallenged.

With such a prospect on the horizon, however distant, we must all commit to marshalling all available resources in order that we can move a step further towards a world where everyone, everywhere will be able to make their own choices about their bodies and their lives.

A huge thank you to everyone who moderated, spoke on and attended the human rights panels, and all those who visited our booth and took action. Remember, you can catch up with conference proceedings on Twitter by searching #WD2013 and #WDLive. The countdown to the next Women Deliver starts now! (Only two years to go.)

Were you there? Let us know what you think of our analysis below, or on Twitter: @_sarahpyke and @demanddignity.

ACT NOW

Sign our petition calling on world leaders to protect the sexual and reproductive rights of young people.

*Update: Beatriz has now had the necessary operation. The foetus was born, as predicted, with large parts of its head and brain missing, and it did not survive.