Postcard from Down Under

William Smith

The 1st World Congress for Sexual Health was held in Australia last week, with a name change and an expanded mission that has public policy and advocacy at its heart.

Most sexual and reproductive health advocates may not know it, but the 1st World Congress on Sexual Health was held last week in the land Down Under. The Congress was organized by the World Association for Sexual Health (WAS), formerly known as the World Association for Sexology, and, though the group has held 17 previous Congresses, when it changed its name in 2005, it also wanted to usher in a new moniker for the Congresses.

WAS has been around since 1978 and until recently, has been mostly focused on the clinical side of sexuality—things like dysfunction, therapy, and the like. They have also had a strong education emphasis over the years. But with the name change comes an expanded mission that has public policy and advocacy at its heart.

WAS's strategy reminds me of Kevin Costner's hopeful dictum in the film Field of Dreams —"if you build it, they will come." Well, Australia was a far way to go, but this year's Congress featured more sessions on policy and advocacy than any prior WAS meeting. And, with the nearly 1,000 registered attendees from every part of the globe, these sessions had strong presentations that drew significant crowds.

Some of the advocacy highlights this year were an Oxford-style debate on abstinence and adolescence and a presentation on how sexuality education is causing controversy throughout countries in Latin America. There was also much talk of the Millennium Development Goals, something that would have been mostly unheard of among the docs and clinical types just a few shorts years ago. Today though, WAS and its members are committed to opening a space for cross-discipline dialogue that can only serve to benefit us all.

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In addition to the ability to draw a crowd—the WAS Congress in Paris in 2001 drew nearly 2,000 people—WAS has a framework ready built for advocacy capacity as it is affiliated with five active regional networks and currently has 124 member organizations representing 53 countries in five continents. The group has also recently created its own scientific, peer-reviewed journal, The International Journal of Sexual Health.

More specifically, however, WAS has embraced and promulgated what it calls Sexual Health for the Millennium (PDF). Based on the Millennium Development Goals and the Cairo Programme of Action, the document puts forward eight points, including one addressing gender equity, another promoting sexual rights, and another addressing the vital, rights-based framework to sexual health information and services. This is coming from a parallel universe of sexual health professionals with whom we in the advocacy community converse but a little. Imagine the potential when we actually engage!

The next World Congress on Sexual Health will be held in Goteberg, Sweden in June of 2009 and the timing could not be better. With Europe under attack from both homegrown and imported radical elements opposed to sexual and reproductive health and rights, the Goteberg Congress will provide an opportunity for advocates from around the globe to take a proactive stand and utilize this network for the advocacy and policy work it wants to undertake. They are building it. And we should definitely be engaging.

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