As we wind down from World AIDS Day, and dust off our "if you get drunk at the office party don't forget to use a condom" messages for the festive season, I wonder what sexual and reproductive health (SRH) advocates should be saying next year.
Whatever the messages should be in 2008, they need to be disseminated more broadly, not just to the converted. The dialogue started at the Women Deliver conference in October with NGOs not directly involved in SRH, and with policy brokers who came to the conference, needs to continue. But more importantly, a dialogue with those who did not attend the conference needs to commence. (A parliamentarian or civil servant who does not know about sexual and reproductive health is as useful as one who opposes it.) This also goes for the world's media who stayed away from the conference in their thousands.
In terms of means of messaging, according to Google, we need to be creating social networks, encouraging our supporters to get more involved online, using available technology to create worldwide networks. In my experience, the majority of politicians and civil servants have only just figured out email, and remain most interested in article and stories that are written in hardcopy editions of newspapers. Let's not loose supporters before we have found them – naturally not ignoring technological advances as they become suited to our needs. (This lack of compatible means of communication remains a problem for anyone engaged in multi-country campaigns. Maybe Bill Gates had a point about everyone needing a computer.)
And the actual messages need to have a more resonant focus. (One of the problems with the recent launch of a Humanitarian Appeal by UNFPA and others is that it is asking anyone for anything for something as soon as possible.) Each and every SRH organisation has its own particular focus, its own targeted agenda, its own “unique selling proposition.” Which may be deemed necessary, but it is confusing to the outsider. And other than the rather indecipherable and dry Cairo language, is there any real consensus on the language and the agendas that need to be discussed and promoted?
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The SRH lobby also has a big problem when it comes to the messages of personal stories and testimonies. There are limits to how much we can expect the "victims" of a lack of access to services and drugs and information to tell their stories. Unless we are paying them, at which point their stories and experiences become institutional property and these people's real voices get lost in the desire to explain and promote those institutional unique selling propositions. And who – quite rightly – should be expected to publicly celebrate (on message) the emancipation of having had access to a safe and affordable abortion, or any other ultimately pretty personal experience? Making the political personal is a nice approach for the media. But individuals may not feel comfortable about having their experiences made into ammunition for media/public/political debate.
In the end of the day, despite the mercurial messaging, the agenda remains the same: SRH is woefully under-funded and compromised and misrepresented. Under-funded because we are not reaching the right people with the right messages. Compromised because SRH is just one of many other development and health agendas out there, and we have not sought sufficient association with those other agendas. And misrepresented because we constantly try and re-invent the wheel – and the message – in an effort to appear relevant.
You all knew all this already. It was just a festive reminder. Along with the fact that World AIDS Day is not just for Christmas.