By Sarah Knaster, Inter-Agency Working Group (IAWG) on Reproductive Health in Crises Coordinator
Earlier this month, more than 200 sexual and reproductive health (SRH) professionals — from 50 countries and 100 agencies — gathered in Athens, Greece, for the 17th Meeting of the Inter-Agency Working Group (IAWG) on Reproductive Health in Crises. By contrast, my first IAWG meeting, in 2013, was so small that we opened the meeting by having each attendee stand up and introduce themselves and their respective agencies. IAWG has come a long way in the last four years alone, and as I stood in front of 220 SRH colleagues, champions, advocates, and allies at the opening of this year’s meeting, its transformation could not have been more apparent.
Many of our participants overcame impressive challenges to attend this year’s meeting — from spending days waiting outside of embassies to booking trips to multiple countries to obtain their visas — just for the opportunity to share their experiences and learn from their colleagues. Their dedication was a testament not only to the value of our work but also to our collective energy, passion, and commitment to providing SRH services for people displaced by conflict and disaster.
What I found most striking about this year’s meeting — and what set it apart from years past — was its focus on our progress to date, what works and ways forward, rather than on the gaps and challenges that remain. For example, IAWG research from 2014 found that safe abortion care had been completely neglected in terms of funding, attention, and programming, a fact that was reflected in previous meetings, in terms of the number, type and quality of submitted abstracts focused on safe abortion care. At this year’s meeting, we held a full-day workshop on safe abortion-care policies and practices in humanitarian settings and hosted multiple presentations and conversations around women’s right to safe abortion care, as well as discussed examples of successful service delivery in extremely complex settings.
During the meeting, we also celebrated the end of an intense and highly collaborative process to revise the Inter-Agency Field Manual for Reproductive Health in Humanitarian Settings, guidance which includes the Minimum Initial Service Package (MISP) for Reproductive Health — a priority set of life-saving SRH activities designed to be implemented in the earliest days of an emergency. Additionally, much more attention was given to long-acting contraceptives, post-abortion care, and adolescent SRH, as well as emerging and overlooked issues, such as care for male and LGBTI sexual violence survivors, sex work, and meaningful accountability for SRH in crises. Voices from the field illuminated how crisis-affected communities demand and utilize SRH services, and that high-quality services can be effectively implemented in humanitarian settings in even the earliest days of active conflict and disaster.
One highlight that stood out for me this year was that, for the first time, governments and foundations were actively and meaningfully engaged before, during, and after the meeting. Their presence, and numbers — especially when compared to previous meetings — marks a clear paradigm shift, as donors and governments are recognizing both how important it is to address SRH in humanitarian settings and how critical the IAWG network is to that effort. We must capitalize on this moment, and this meeting provided a space to form and strengthen partnerships with our donor allies.
Apart from the formal program, the IAWG meeting also provided a unique space for people from all over the world to come together to meet with fellow advocates. The value of this opportunity cannot be understated and is something I heard again and again from participants. The meeting provided a space for us to share our unique experiences, learn from one another, and align on common priorities and approaches — ultimately, to create an enabling environment for best practices in the field of SRH in crises and to speak powerfully, with one voice, on many of these issues.
There was an energy at this year’s meeting that I haven’t quite felt in past meetings. It felt like we had arrived at a moment in time, after years of slow — but steady — progress, when we are poised to collectively advance the field of SRH in humanitarian settings in an impactful way. My hope is that we can use the energy and momentum I know many of us still feel post-meeting to make that a reality. I have a feeling that we will look back at the 2017 meeting of the IAWG as a watershed moment in our history and in our fight to ensure that record numbers of displaced women and girls, men and boys have the access to the sexual and reproductive health services that they need, no matter where they are, no matter what their circumstance.
To learn more about the IAWG network and its annual meeting, please visit: www.iawg.net
All photos courtesy of Joey O’Loughlin.