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SocietyMarch 8, 2019

Three ways we can make life better for women on International Women’s Day

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International Women’s Day is a day to reflect on how far women have come, and how far we still have to go. Family Planning chief executive Jackie Edmond looks to the future and what sexual and reproductive health barriers remain to be overcome.

In 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding voting rights, better pay and shorter working hours. This protest is considered by many to be the first International Women’s Day event.

Just one year later, it was decided that there would be an International Women’s Day. A day to push women’s rights into headlines and advocate for change for women globally.

In 1913, March 8 was declared International Women’s Day and recognised by the United Nations in 1975. The kaupapa of the day has held true since then – what do women need and want to live their lives fully in safety? How can we achieve global gender equality?

Around the world we all mark this day differently. It is an official holiday in many countries – Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China (for women only), Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Madagascar (for women only), Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nepal (for women only), Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zambia.

Unfortunately, it’s not a holiday in New Zealand. Equally unfortunately, there are still sexual and reproductive health barriers that can stop women reaching their full potential.

Abortion Law Reform

Our abortion legislation currently sits under the Crimes Act. We would like to see abortion removed from the Crimes Act and treated as the health issue that it is. We are encouraged by the 2018 Law Commission Review of abortion law and the recommendations the Commission made to the Minister of Justice.

The issue for us as a country progressing law reform is how we choose to treat pregnant people who want to end a pregnancy. Family Planning believes that what is most important is that our new laws trusts women to make their own decisions. The role of the government should be to support women by ensuring that the best possible abortion services are available and accessible. That’s what we all want from our health care system.

Unfortunately, our current law gets in the way of a woman getting the best abortion health care. The process of getting an abortion is overly complex, with medically unnecessary appointments, delays and limited services in many regions.

During the past two decades, over 30 countries have modernised their abortion laws. New Zealand is behind on this issue. It’s simply time to respect women enough to ensure they can make decisions about their own body and future.

Contraceptive access

The introduction of modern contraceptive methods – especially the oral contraceptive pill in the early 1960s – was revolutionary for women, contributing to greater choice and gender equality. Research confirms what common sense suggests – when women have the opportunity to plan and space pregnancies, they have the chance to further their education and employment and the health of women, children and their communities is better.

Women have many contraceptive options today, including long-acting reversible contraception or LARCs. Not only are they the most effective methods of contraception available (more than 99 per cent effective), they’re becoming more and more popular as people discover the freedom they offer – once in place a woman need do nothing for years.

There are three types of LARC available for women in New Zealand:

1. A copper intrauterine device (IUD) that works for 5 to 10 years

2. A hormonal intra uterine device that works for 3 to 5 years

3. An implant under the skin in your arm that works for 3 to 5 years

Unfortunately, only two of these are funded by PHARMAC. Currently – with the exception of a small number of women who meet strict criteria – only women who can afford to pay for a hormonal IUD for contraception can access it, leaving women with limited resources fewer contraceptive options. This contributes to inequitable reproductive health outcomes. There is a clear need for this effective and acceptable form of contraception to be subsidised, particularly in light of increasing use of LARCs in New Zealand and across the globe.

Women in New Zealand should have equal access to all modern methods of contraception. We need to stop minimising the importance of contraception to women’s health and wellbeing.

Relationship and sexuality education in schools

The Education Review Office (ERO) released a report on sexuality education in New Zealand primary and secondary schools last year. As expected, the report shows that little has changed in over a decade with nearly half of schools struggling to teach this area of the curriculum. Many young people are still missing out on comprehensive relationship and sexuality education, with many schools not covering key areas of learning well or at all. Issues like healthy relationships, consent, gender stereotypes, diversity and sexual violence need to be included.

The OECD Technical Guidance on sexuality education states: “Gender-focused programmes are substantially more effective than ‘gender-blind’ programmes at achieving health outcomes such as reducing rates of unintended pregnancy or STIs. This is as a result of the inclusion of transformative content and teaching methods that support students to question social and cultural norms around gender and to develop gender equitable attitudes.”

To make a difference in the lives of the next generation of young women, we should at least be getting relationship and sexuality education right. Girls and young women in particular need to be empowered in sexual relationships.

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