ASTRA’s regional voice on May 28

This years’ May 28th International Day of Action for Women’s Health comes in a time of anniversaries: 20th anniversary of the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development, 20 years of the Beijing Platform of Action in 1995 and 15 years since the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals. The current United Nations processes focus on reviewing and assessing the gains made since these events, identifying remaining gaps and setting new development priorities for the years to come. The civil society works to ensure that the global and regional voices of women are heard at the UN, especially the voices advocating for sexual and reproductive health and rights which remain to be an issue we must continue to fight for. Not only it is a matter of women’s health. It is an issue of RIGHTS, reproductive and sexual rights, which are a part of human rights framework. The May 28 campaign is the opportunity to remind our community, law makers and politicians about this and call for a greater commitment to ensuring and securing these rights.

This year also marks the 10th anniversary of the 2004 European Union enlargement. Ten years ago, on 1 May 2004, the EU enlarged from 15 to 25 Member States as Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Hungary joined the Union. Currently the majority of Central and Eastern European states are members of the EU[1]. This marked a historic step for this region and offered great chance for achievement of gender equality which can never be fulfilled without securing sexual and reproductive health and rights. Throughout  these 10 years we have had some great SRHR champions at the European Parliament and some great victories and steps forward. Given that gender equality and human rights are two fundamental foundations of the European Union, both in membership to the EU and in external policies, reproductive and sexual rights issues must be addressed by the EU and many times they have been, and hopefully will be addressed in the future.

Having in mind the high-level UN led processes, numerous country/regional/global consultations, reports, reviews, and visions on how to move forward the global discussions on women’s issues, gender equality and SRHR we must at some point ask ourselves a question of how does this really influence the countries at a local level? At the level of a woman who has just been denied access to a legal abortion due to her doctor’s personal views. Or a teenager who would like to begin his/her sex life well prepared but the internet and pornography remain to be the only sources of information. A woman who cannot afford contraception. All these dilemmas could be solved quite easily with full access to sexual and reproductive health and when all people, regardless of their age, sexual orientation and gender identity or any other status were considered as holders of sexual and reproductive rights. But is this really happening? Are we really taking the issues from the global level and adapting them to the regional and local level?

ASTRA has been monitoring the situation on SRHR in the Central and Eastern Europe region for 15 years – this year also marks also the 15th anniversary of ASTRA Network[2]. In these many years we have witnessed many steps forward but also experienced backlash on women’s rights, especially the right to choose. As a pro-choice organization fighting for the right of every woman and girl to have control over her own body we look at the world through a lens of reproductive justice. What is currently happening, at a regional level, has little to do with the discussions about the Post-2015 agenda and what the future goals will look like. We are experiencing a serious backlash and a serious attempt to limit our rights, which are not even granted in some countries of the region.

Women’s reproductive rights are in crisis in Europe[3]. Since 2011, the Hungarian constitution has affirmed that life begins at conception and legal abortions are difficult to access. Hungarian government has also funded an anti-abortion poster campaign, and doctors and nurses are increasingly refusing to perform abortions. In Poland abortion access has been severely restricted since 1993 and is legal in three cases only. In year 2012, according to the official report there have been 757 abortion procedures performed. The irony behind this number is more than obvious. The Catholic Church together with the far-right political groups has declared a war on “gender ideology” (term coined to fight gender equality policies and education), a trend that can also be observed in Italy and France. Anti-choice posters have been hanged around streets of several cities in Romania whilst Lithuania is facing a serious threat of anti-abortion legislation: “Law on the protection of a life in  pre-natal phase”, which aims to sentence women performing illegal abortion up to three years of prison. The attacks on reproductive right should be seen in context of the financial crisis and low birth rates in all countries of the CEE region which feed the nationalistic rhetoric in which women are seen mainly through their reproductive functions. The anti-choice and far-right groups are mobilised, well organised, well financed and will not stop. Only in April this year the European Citizens’ Initiative ‘One Of Us’ collected over 1 million supporters and took its proposal to the European Parliament and thus made it clear that they are moving beyond acting on local grounds. Fortunately it has been rejected by the European Commission.

A few days ago the 2014 EU elections took place. The results are not optimistic as Euro-sceptic parties made big gains across Europe with anti-establishment parties gaining in support across the continent. The EU Parliament’s December 2013 rejection of the “Estrela report”, which called for the sexual and reproductive health of women to be respected throughout the EU and for women to have access to the healthcare required for this, including safe and legal abortion, can be read as a sign of tougher times ahead. It can be but doesn’t have to. The progressive groups are still active in the European Parliament with great support from the civil society. Soon we will be able to identify strong women’s rights and SRHR champions within the European Parliament for the next 5 years.

The discussions on access to safe and legal abortion, contraception, comprehensive sexuality education and LGBTQI issues are moving beyond the issue of health and are seen in the context of rights more and more frequently, not only within the EU but also at the UN. The United Nations agencies, still reluctant to recognise sexual rights, call for a universal access to sexual and reproductive health and for ensuring reproductive right of all women and girls. These are important gains and we must not forget them when advocating at local and regional level. In times of rapid social changes such steps can build an entirely new framework. We must not lose hope and on the occasion of May 28th shout even louder, reach more potential supporters and remind ourselves of why exactly we are doing the work we do.

[1] Romania and Bulgaria entered the EU in 2007, Croatia in 2013. Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro are candidate countries; Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are potential candidates for the EU membership []

[2] ASTRA Network is an informal regional network of NGOs and individuals advocating in a collective voice for sexual and reproductive health and rights in Central and Eastern Europe. It is a coalition of currently 39 organizations from 21 countries. Go to to find out more.

[3] As reference I have used the article by Rachael Ferguson and Gwyneth Lonergan „A collective responsibility: reproductive rights in crisis across Europe”.