Interview with Sandeep Prasad – Executive Director, Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights

by | May 27, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Sandeep Prasad is the Executive Director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights. Here we talk about his life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did you get interested in sexual and reproductive health and rights?

Sandeep Prasad: That is a good question. I grew up in an Indian household. I went to an Anglican school, where the sex-ed that I received was very basic. It was really focused on anatomy and risk. Later in my adolescence, while still in high school, I discovered that I had same-sex attractions.

I came out, myself, as queer. In university, I heavily involved in LGBT organizing on campus during my undergrad. I realized that in that time that I wanted to do professional work related to human rights and sexuality. Of course, law school seemed like a good place to go next after my undergrad. I went to law school in Ottawa. I got involved in this work. The thing is, once you start experiencing and exploring and issue and feel impacted by them, you see the interactions with other issues.

Whether it is same-sex sexuality, abortion rights, and so on, all link to basically the right to bodily autonomy. I was able to work after law school on these issues, luckily. I started my career and have been working globally and domestically, in Canada.

Jacobsen: With regards to Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights for sexual and reproductive health rights, I ask this for a framework going forward. What is its mandate?

Prasad: Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights’s mandate is to uphold sexual and reproductive rights in Canada and globally. We are motivated by creating societies and enabling societies, where everyone can realize their right to bodily autonomy. Where people are empowered to make the decisions related to their body as rights for them, they have the means and support to make sexual reproductive decision-making.

This organization formed out of the merger of three organizations. First, Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights Population and Development, I was the ED before the merger in 2013. That organization primarily did global, sexual reproductive rights policy work.

The other two organizations were Canadians for Choice and the Canada Federation for Sexual Health. Both of whom had worked in Canada. Canadians for Choice was created after and out of the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League.

Because it was thought that Canadian’s for Choice could be an organization where decriminalization could happen, and people could be empowered to access abortion services in Canada. The Canadian Federation for Sexual Health builds on the legacy of what used to be called the Planned Parenthood Federation of Canada.

There are some prominent organizations in the history of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights. It continues to this day in our work.

Jacobsen: If we are looking at two facets of two pragmatic operations of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, for short, what is being done domestically, in Canada in other words, in general for initiatives and for programs?

Prasad: Whew, wow, there is a lot that we do. In Canada, there are a couple of things. There are direct supports to individuals in Canada through our access line. Abortion services are and have been hard to access in Canada and hard to locate in Canada. It is a 24/7 line staffed by volunteers but also Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights staff members.

It provides information about sexual and reproductive health, particularly around pregnancy options; it provides referrals to abortions services. That is one. The direct services function is one that Canadian’s for Choice was previously stewarding.

The work that we do is also policy related. We do policy relate campaigns in Canada. We have taken the time for drugs being available. Part of that, what has been a barrier to that is the actual price tag, we did a campaign or have been doing a campaign on universal cost coverage of Mifegymiso.

That is one policy campaign. We have gotten the most prominent in the territories to commit and implement universal cost coverage. That is wonderful. They can terminate a pregnancy, whether it is surgical abortion or a medical abortion with Mifegymiso.

We are increasingly doing more work on sexuality education in Canada. We are currently building a national campaign on that issue. That is another aspect of our work. The direct support gets supplemented with direct policy change.

Jacobsen: With respect to education and in terms of better knowledge of the public reducing discrimination, for instance, if someone is coming out as queer, as gay, as bi, as trans, and so on, how effective is evidence-based modernized education helpful in this sense, in a domestic scene?

Prasad: I think it is beyond helpful. I think it is essential. Part of the problem, certainly, with the sexuality education I received, it did not affirm sexual and gender diversity. It did not actually address anything that I was experiencing.

It did not really help me come to terms with my sexuality and begin to think about my sexuality in more positive and affirmative ways. That is problematic. Also, we have had, for several years now, a very clear attention to the issues of school bullying.

That has been great; that the focus has been there. But education done comprehensively and progressively, and done in a way that is universally implemented, across the country is key to making sure classrooms are more welcoming, young people are learning about human rights, and how they tie to sexuality and gender.

We are fostering cultures where individuals are more respectful of the sexual decision-making of others. I think that is really a key point to make. Sexuality education for us remains a key intervention to ensuring that people in all their diversity can live empowered and respectful sexual lives.

Jacobsen: If we are looking at two general categories, we have conservative oriented viewpoints. We have progressive-oriented viewpoints. These conservative and progressive viewpoints look at sexual and reproductive health rights in different ways.

I want to ask a question about both at the same time. What do progressives get wrong and right about sexual and health rights? What do conservatives in general get wrong and right about sexual and health rights in Canada?

Prasad: [Laughing] interesting question. I can speak to those working on different aspects of sexual and reproductive health rights. I think what we have often gotten wrong is we tend to silo-ize these issues. We tend to invisibilize certain issues as well. I think that is problematic.

I think, first, what we are getting wrong is the silo-ization of these issues. I really do not see, in terms of my personal perspective, differences in issues of sexuality, sexual diversity, sexual orientation, and issues of sexual and reproductive health around abortion and contraception.

I find these often unhelpfully separated. We do need to bring these together in a comprehensive framework centered around bodily autonomy. That is, it centered around this right that people can make decisions around their own bodies and sexual reproductive lives in a way that is supported with information, education, and so on.

It is supported in an enabling environment, where we proactively address attitudes and stigmas. I feel like that silo-ization happens on different issues within sexuality and reproduction. It is not helpful. In terms of what I think we are getting right, slowly, we are advancing sexuality education in schools.

That being something that has really come to the media. Both in BC and Ontario. The actions of forces opposed to issues of sexual reproductive rights. I think that the attention being given to as an issue is the fundamental issue to ensuring that we can create a society, where people are able to realize their sexual and reproductive rights.

Now, onto the second part of the questions, in terms of what people who are opposed to these rights are – framed within the silo-ization point – from groups who are local minorities, those who are opposed to sexual and reproductive rights, whether LGBT rights, abortion rights, and so on.

Absolutely, we can often see these issues better than those who are progressive. Because, often when they are opposing, they are opposing a wide swathe of these issues, including LGBT rights, abortion, contraception, and so on.

They have a very set view of how people should be living their lives, which means sometimes aligning with these traditional Judeo-Christian values. Those that are misogynistic and homophobic. They are seeing connections between issues. I find this interesting.

Of course, I think we do not actually talk about or figure out how to dialogue is points where we can have a discussion between a wider range of actors. So, the issue of sexuality education, for example. The lack thereof issue, people are making decisions that are not right for them.

When they have not had the information, they have not actually been a help to reflecting on what is the most appropriate for them, feels good to them, and so on.

That leads to sexual regrets. I would think that regret is one of these things. Sexual education, like you mentioned, can help end sexual regret. I would think that a wider segment of social can get behind insuring that we are not regretting our sexual lives.

That are given the information to making the decisions right for us. We should use these lenses more than we should in dialogue. I hope I was reasonably coherent [Laughing].

Jacobsen: [Laughing] no worries at all. Let us go to the international questions as a closing set. What are the main initiatives and programs through Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights abroad?

Prasad: What we fundamentally do in our global work is work as a coalition of national and regional organizations from the global south and the global north coming together to do two things, one is advance global policy on sexual reproductive rights issues; another is support sexual reproductive rights defenders and women’s human rights defenders, and LGBT human rights defenders from around the world to use the mechanisms of the international human rights systems to hold their governments accountable.

We work in solidarity with them to help them navigate those systems. A lot happens at the UN. We often think of the UN as this distant place disconnected from the daily realities.

But in fact, so much discussed at the UN is directly relevant on people’s lives, very often, we make sure that we are working with national and regional organizations around the world to bring the voices to the UN to make sure the voices are part of the discussions at the UN.

The Sexual Rights Initiative is one way in which we do it. Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights is part of the coalition.

Jacobsen: Not a laundry list, but, who are the main important actors relevant to Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights?

Prasad: The SRI has 6 members. In addition to Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, there is the Coalition of African Lesbians in Johannesburg. There is CREA based in New Delhi. There’s ACAHATA, which is the Latin-American organization working on sexuality and gender. The Federation for Women and Family Planning in Poland, there is also the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. The last one is a human rights organization that works on a wide range of issues including women’s rights and sexuality.

Those are our key partnerships within this work: the members of the SRI, the SRI itself collaborating with a plethora of other national and regional organizations around the world.

Jacobsen: In terms of domestic and international, what are the benefits to the individuals, the citizens, as well as the public? Not only in terms of being more educated but also in health outcomes, by being properly equipped about knowledge of their rights and things that are conducive to better sexual and reproductive health.

Prasad: Part of our goal is to ensure that our national reality in Canada and global mechanisms, international human rights standards, and so on, are aligned together, Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights seeks to hold our government accountable through these international human rights mechanisms.

We want to see these standards better implemented in Canada. To us, that is clear in terms of something that we worked on. For example, we just highlighted a number of these UN mechanisms about what is happening in Ontario and the rollback of sexual and reproductive education there.

The UN has responded. The mechanisms have responded. There can be mandate to educate the federal government on what it is doing to ensure that this rollback is reversed and sexuality education in Canada is implemented in a way that is consistent with human rights.

That ensures that education around the key issues such as sexual and gender diversity, education for people with disabilities relating to sexuality, and so on, are part of this. The UN is questioning Canada on this now. I think that is where that goes. I think the UN is a good way to question governments, because governments don’t like being embarrassed at the international level.

Jacobsen: For those who want to become involved, whether as members or staff, throughout the donation of time, networks, money, professional skills, how can Canadian do so? Or if they wish to become informed, how can they do that?

Prasad: I would encourage people to check out our website and our Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram feeds. We are quite active on social media. We seek to engage people across the country in our campaigning works, whether around medical cost coverage, whether it is
around sexual education in the near future, and so on.

That is a primary place to look. Our website also has a lot of information on it. People can use it to become better informed on some of these realities in Canada, and to be better involved themselves and hold their governments to account and to ask their collective decision-makers what they are doing on these issues.

That is a starting point.

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

Prasad: Thank you, Scott, it has been a great conversation. Thank you for the all of those questions.

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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Photo by Jérôme Prax on Unsplash

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