Interview with Meghan Doherty – Policy and Advocacy Officer and Sexual Rights Initiative coalition representative of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights

by | May 28, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Meghan Doherty is the Policy and Advocacy Officer for the Sexual Rights Initiative (Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights). Here we talk about her life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What were background in early life and professional training prior to joining the Sexual Rights Initiative?

Meghan Doherty: I am originally from Canada. I grew up in Nova Scotia, in Halifax. In my early life, I did not do much work on sexual and reproductive rights. In 2003, I moved to Ireland to do a Master’s in Women’s Studies. 

It was upon arrival that I realized abortion was criminalized in all circumstances. I was never confronted with that situation before. I was fortunate to relate to local women’s organizations, grassroots activists, who were advocating for changes to the law on abortion in Ireland.

I started working at a sexual violence center there. For the next 4 years, I was involved in grassroots advocating. In 2007, I moved to the Irish Family Planning Association, which is a member association of the International Planned Parenthood Federation in Ireland.

I worked on policy reform relating to abortion and women’s reproductive rights more broadly and looking at the human rights dimensions there. Following that, I moved back to Canada in 2011. I started working with Action Canada for Population and Development, as it was called at that time.

It was a coordinating partner of the Sexual Rights Initiative. Some context, the SRI does not exist on its own. It is a coalition of 6 national and regional organizations from all parts of the world.

We have Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action (CREA), The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), The Federation for Women and Family Planning, Akahatá Equipo de Trabajo en Sexualidades y Generos (Working Team on Sexualities and Genders), and Coalition of African Lesbians.

This was my first introduction to SRI. I began working for it in early 2016. I am the Director of Global Policy and Advocacy. We still hold the coordinating position for SRI. More background on the SRI, we got together in earnest with the Human Rights Council based in Geneva. 

It was previously the UN Commission on Human Rights because it was not functioning. I wanted to move away from identity-based advocacy. So, a lot of the organizations within the coalition were working on issues like sexual orientation and gender identity, sexual and reproductive health rights, and so on.

But I wanted to use a broader framework to understand human rights violations in those contexts as well as to make better linkages between issues. So, it is making connections between restrictions on abortion and restrictions on same-sex relationships, and using the framing of bodily autonomy to articulate these demands.

The SRI came together in 2006. We have been going strong now. We are in our 16th year. We all come together – all the different partners – to Geneva at the HRC for each of the HRC sessions. 

So, they happen from March to December every year. Last year, we were fortunate enough to expand our presence in Geneva to have four staff that work out of a Geneva office full time to support the work of the SRI partner, and to engage in the international human rights system.

It means that throughout the year; we were on the political dimensions, which happens at the HRC as they are negotiating resolutions and making public statements to advance the normative framework of sexual rights.

We work through “country review mechanism” including the Universal Periodic Review, where each country is reviewed on its entire human rights record, the treaty monitoring bodies. Also, what is known as a system of special procedures, these are independent human rights experts appointed by the member states of the UN to investigate human rights concerns.

When working through the country review mechanisms, we work with the national and local organizations to analyze and prepare reports to leverage expertise with their acknowledgement of the context, the laws, the policies, the politics, and so on.

It is to make sure sexual and reproductive rights are represented in all these aspects of the human rights system, but the national and regional, and local, organizations can use these processes to really advance their own agendas at the national level.

It is holding their own governments accountable for their human rights obligations.

Jacobsen: You answered several questions in the back of my mind. You read my mind.

Doherty: [Laughing].

Jacobsen: Typically, it can be framed as secular and religious-oriented strongmen arising. Now, it is not saying, “Men equal bad.” What is it saying, “There is a phenomenon of strong men in leadership arising and, typically, coming alongside repeals or attempts to retract either the respect for or the implementation of women’s rights, how ever much they are in that particular country.”

How does this impact your work through global policy and advocacy through SRI, and other organizations, too? Given, this appears to be an international phenomenon.

Doherty: Yes, I think the rise of authoritarian regimes and the archetypes of the strongman. We are seeing a resurgence of these kinds of leadership styles if you can call it that.

One thing that we have done through our work is working with alarm bell systems of the UN to make sure that the impact of these authoritarian regimes on women’s rights 1) are getting the attention that they deserve and 2) to also encourage and to investigate ourselves.

What are other root causes that create the environment for these leaders to not only come to power but also to stay in power and maintain popular support? What are they tapping into? What are the conditions under which the different state actors and civil society actors are supporting these ideological and ideology-based leaders and regimes? 

So, we do it in a few ways. There are experts doing analysis and documentation of how these groups are using the international human right system to subvert what are normally considered to be universal human rights.

They are using the language of human rights and coming across as ‘very reasonable.’ But we see the real impact is to restrict rights even further and then to use this as justification for further repression in countries.

The most direct impact of this is around national organizations and local organizations trying to do grassroots mobilization. We saw, most recently, in Geneva at the HRC; there was an event on authoritarian regimes with civil society speakers from Brazil, where the Brazilian ambassador has been moderate in the past.

She was in the audience. She stood up. She attacked the speaker saying, ‘You are spreading fake news… the things that you are saying about the repression of LGBT persons and women’s rights is not true. It is not happening in Brazil.’

I know this sounds very tame. But within a UN context, it is very unusual. You have the language of the diplomats within the UN spaces and how this is translated within the national level is cracking down organizing and delegitimizing civil society activities focusing on women’s rights and rights more broadly.

In Egypt, we are seeing activists and advocates being put in jail; the organizations are being deregistered. For example, one of our partners in SRI, Coalition of African Lesbians, is had their observer status revoked. The African Commission on Human Rights said that it was promoting un-African values.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Doherty: The very basics of the organizing and advocacy are under threat from these regimes. It is one thing to have the public debates. It is another to be prevented from participating in the discourse on public values. We are seeing states are abusing these very same rights that we trying to uphold and use to advance people’s rights, as a way of oppressing civil society activists.

We also know women are at the frontline of repression all the time. You would be hard pressed to find any authoritarian regime in which women are not sacrificed in the name of the pursuit of whatever they are trying to pursue.

One of the stories that I feel is not really being told very much. We highlighted this during a statement to the Council in March. The strategies, the persistence of human rights defenders over millennia, really, has worked to counter these authoritarian regimes.

Even those who put forward a friendly face, we see a repression of women’s rights anyway. There is a lot to be learned as states wring their hands and fret about the rise of authoritarianism. We could do well to listen to those who have been fighting these leaders for a long time.

Jacobsen: If you are looking at North America, as this is a Canadian publication, what traditional stream people will assume, probably, in the readership here is religion – fundamentalist religion – being a source of oppression of women, you are noting something important. It is the notion of a form of secular fundamentalism through a formalized institution or a body called the state.

How is this playing out in a context more close to home to some of the readership here, potentially?

Doherty: In North America, we must make some distinctions between the U.S. and Canada. Because I think the political climate in the U.S. is a bit different from where we are in America and the protections that we have in place in Canada. We are different in the United States.

I would first draw the distinction there. I do think that we see, for example, within Canada the anti-abortion movement and the anti-choice folks arguing and using different tactics in the way of trying to repress women’s rights and access to abortion throughout Canada, whether this is through intense public pressure on elected officials, through these false helps or crisis pregnancy centres that present themselves as places for helping women with their abortions when they’re really trying to deter women from getting abortions, and so on.

One aspect that does share a lot with the U.S. is the spread of misinformation. The ways in which they may not need to convince everybody. But if they can confuse enough people, then they will have done their job. We see this around false information being spread around medical risks to abortion and things around abortion that are patently false.

We see scare tactics around saying that Canada has no abortion laws. The regulations that are in place. These disregard all the information. So, advocates like us, we have to spend a lot of our time – not really engaging with these folks as this is not the avenue that we want to pursue, which is best used with correct and rights-based information is available and is disseminated while working to educate the public and politicians, and looking at best practices and applying the human rights approach to policy recommendations.

We are engaging on all the fronts that create something and create something positive. It is to ensure that there is a counter to the misinformation where the correct, rights-based, medically accurate information is out there. It is making sure that all that information is available.

I think in the U.S.; their relationship is not only with religion but also with secularism and issues of women’s rights and sexual and reproductive rights more generally. It is on a different and has always been on a different trajectory. But I think that there are lessons to be learned. In this sense, you have to be constantly safeguarding gates that have been made to be honest and truthful, and are persuasive.

It is showing how it is important that we, collectively, agree on women’s sexual and reproductive rights, sexual rights more broadly; that we spend the time and energy working with communities to ensure that everybody is included. That nobody is left out. That we are making the links between, for example, racism and access to sexual and reproductive health services.

Or the criminalization of sex work in Canada, and the violence against women. It is doing the hard, slow, slog of informing people and persuading them really getting people to agree on the collective value of everybody’s human rights, which includes sexual and reproductive rights

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Meghan.

Doherty: Bye!

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

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