By Dorine Thomissen, Programme Manager @Simavi
I arrived in New York to attend the Commission on Population and Development (CPD). Together with NGO colleagues all over the world, and Simavi’s partners from Indonesia in particular, I will be defending women’s and girls’ rights to decide about their own bodies and lives. It is 25 years since the underlying agenda that recognizes these rights was agreed by 179 member states. Moreover, it is not just a conference to me. It is very special. Let me tell you why.
20 Years ago – SRHR
In 1999, I met an Indonesian woman named Budi Wahyuni at the University of Amsterdam. We both attended a course on medical anthropology. It was the year I had to decide on the topic of my master thesis, as well as the destination of my field research. Budi and I had a few chats and she even invited me to come to Indonesia, but I was not sure. She did make me consider however. Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) had only been recognized 5 years earlier in Cairo, and not many studies on SRHR had been conducted in Indonesia. A while later, my university connected me with a university in Indonesia and we agreed that I would collaborate on their reproductive health study.
Upon arrival in Jakarta, it soon turned out to be a complete miss match. Instantly I was confronted with what and I understood it was a huge part of the problem: ‘silencing sexuality’. I was puzzled how a study on reproductive health could not include a single question about sex! Besides, the project did not offer me the space to develop and use my own research methods. Jakarta was overwhelming and the language barrier much bigger than expected. I was 22 years old, alone and devastated. What to do?
A change of events
Then I remembered something about gatekeepers and key contact persons, and Budi crossed my mind again. I decided to give her a call. I can still picture my nervous self in the wartel, a small phone shop (no mobile phones those times!). Would she even remember me? She did! To my big surprise, she told me without any hesitation: “Please come over, just take the train to Yogyakarta! You can work with us at the Indonesian Planned Parenthood Association (IPPA). Our volunteers will be happy to take you along in their activities.” On top of that, she offered me an unique situation: a place to stay. Her family home was partly empty. There would just be a few girls who needed a bit of shelter. If I would not mind, I could live with them and support them.
I could not believe the sudden exciting turn my journey was taking. I decided to fully embrace the opportunity and to make the very best out of it. For four months I lived and learned with a group of unwanted/unplanned pregnant girls. I learned their language, listened to their stories, I felt their stress, emotions and pain. I hung out with peer educators, joined their outreach and taught about sexuality. It became painfully clear: it was so much demanded and needed.
I finalized my master thesis on gender and sexuality (‘Yogya dating city’) in Yogyakarta and graduated in 2000. However, it was not the good grade and diploma that affected me most. The experience and the stories of the girls and young people lightened a small flame inside of me, which grew into a burning hot passion for SRHR. It shaped not just my career but my everything.
Encountered stories of three young women
F got pregnant from her boyfriend. I remember we had a chat and she told me something close to: “He was all over me, like in a film. Unstoppable. I didn’t know what was happening to me”. F never thought about the possibility of getting pregnant. Her boyfriend left her and F had to have difficult conversations with her parents. Her parents – her father in particular – were very upset, but eventually agreed to help her take care of the baby. However, when the baby was born her parents changed their minds, and strangers adopted her baby instead. I have met F few years later still processing her trauma.
R got pregnant from her boyfriend. R chooses to not tell a single person besides her boyfriend, and decided for adoption. Her biggest fear was that someone would find out about their secret. I am not sure if R and her boyfriend lasted. I believe she finished her studies, and lives her live with her secret in fear.
M was slightly older. She had separated from her husband and was already with a child. M got pregnant during a short affair away from home. She decided to stay away from home a bit longer, give birth and bring the baby back home with an ‘adapted’ story. M contacted me a short while ago (thank you internet!). She got back to her first husband and had a third child with him. But the marriage did not last and she ended up being a single mom. Her middle child knows that she has a different father. But papa has never wanted to know her and they have never met.
20 Years later – SRHR on conferences
In December my Simavi colleague and SRHR advocate Morillio Williams, attended a CPD pre-conference in Kuala Lumpur together with the director of our partner IHAP: Mirawati. Morillio came back all excited, telling me that they met this great woman from the National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan). They had the idea to organise something together at CPD, to bring attention to SRHR in Indonesia, and in particular the lack of access to contraceptives and safe abortion. “By the way this woman” Morillio said “I think she knows you”.
And here I am with Budi, Mirawati and Morillio, bringing the voices of F, R and M to the place were diplomats and world leaders unfortunately still battle about rights that are so essential and important to young women. Because too many women are still struggling and experiencing trauma, stress and fear. Their lives and developments are being jeopardized. Women and girls need more information than men (yes indeed!), access to contraceptives and services, and most importantly, they need to be able to decide over their own bodies. They should have the opportunity to negotiate or even speak. Because it is their right, and because we belief it will eventually benefit the growth and development of us all.
CPD, a very special conference it is! We will tell you how it went!
From left to right: Morillio, Mirawati, Dorine & Budi