EU parliamentBrrrrrr! Europe is frozen… I saw it with my own eyes this week as I travelled by train to Brussels to participate to a Public Hearing on Sexual & Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) organised by FEEM Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality.

The meeting took place at the European Parliament which for a strange reason has an enormous luminescent heart at its entrance.

I went there as part of my involvement with the SHE programme  an Europe wide project – sponsored by the pharmaceutical company BMS –  which aims to improve the quality of life of women living with HIV, through peer-support for HIV positive women and education of Healthcare Practitioners in order to promote better communication around the needs of women living with HIV.

The hearing objectives wereto select important issues, explore current landscape and provide some recommendations for the future report on SRHR under direction on Ms. Edite Estrela, Portuguese politician and Member of the European Parliament for the Socialist Party.

Renowned experts such us: Dr. Gunta Lazdane, Regional Adviser for Reproductive Health and Research in WHO Europe and Johanna Westeson, Regional Director for Europe of the Center for Reproductive presented their views in different discussion panels, such as health literacy and sexual education, public health systems and accessibility in the EU and the role of the EU in promoting these rights globally.

Overall it was really interesting to see how access to some basic services such as contraception and abortion still really differ around Europe with some countries still experiencing real obstacles: for example  in Ireland this year  a woman died because she wasn’t allowed to have an abortion. It was reassuring hearing panellist affirming that SRHR should be promoted as a fundamental Human Right and that this view will inform the report that will be presented to the European Union Parliament.

At the end of the debate there was time for Q&A. So thanks to a bit of a prompting from Joanna from BMS, I gathered courage, put my hand up,  and invited the panel to comment on the obstacles women living with HIV face in Europe when trying to access SRHR.

I introduced myself as a woman with HIV ( this is in my view an important political statement to counteract the invisibility caused by stigma)   and as a member of  SHE, and  spoke of how many of us face huge judgement and ostracism, from the community and even in healthcare, when we want to get pregnant.  Sometimes we are even pushed to have abortions (as reported by the Italian HIV positive leader Rosaria Lardino  here). I told them how even in the UK, just a few weeks ago I heard young HIV positive women reporting being denied contraception (the assumption being that they should only use condoms, despise widespread evidence  that women with HIV should have access to dual protection in contraception ) .

All experts and MEPs expressed their high interest and confirmed the importance of these issues. Here’s some comments:

  • “My recommendation will be to promote integration of services dedicated to women”, Thilde Knudsen, Marie Stops International
  • “After experience of workshop with Polish women living with HIV, we’ve learnt that the most important is to help them to fight against their fears and show them that they have a right to require a better care and quality of life. Women should be supported and empowered!”, Krystyna Kacpura, ASTRA network.
  • “Create the women network is crucial
  •   “Number of women with HIV is constantly increasing in Europe. Physicians should be trained on regular basis and women should have an access to the appropriate services and possibility to basically collaborate with their physicians.” Prof Izdebski (Poland).

After the meeting, the political advisor of the GUE party, to which the chair of the FEMM committee belongs, approached me and asked me to provide concrete suggestions for wording to be included in the upcoming report on SRHR.

To conclude I am really grateful that SHE is now implemented in over 14 countries in Europe (even in my homeland Italy!) and that we will be able to promote our Human Rights at European level, and that hopefully this can have an influence in our local countries.
It is a small step but an important one.



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