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Health rights under spotlight 


Rethabile Pitso


A CALL has been made for the media to highlight sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) to educate the public and hold government to account on their stated goals.

This was said by Botswana High Court judge, Justice Key Dingake, on Tuesday while addressing journalists and parliamentarians at the opening of the Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum (SADC PF) workshop on SRHR in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Held under the theme, ‘Promotion of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, HIV and AIDS Governance Through the Media: Focusing on a rights-based Approach’, the two-day workshop was meant to identify effective ways to achieve greater advocacy and awareness of SRHR and HIV/AIDS issues through the media.

Among the workshop’s panelists were Justice Dingake, Lesotho’s HIV/AIDS Parliamentary Committee chairperson Mathabo Shao and Zambian physicist, journalist and HIV/AIDS activist Dr Manasseh Phiri.

Justice Dingake, who is interim co-chair of the newly-established Regional Think Tank on HIV, Health and Social Justice in Southern and Eastern Africa, said the media had a huge role to play in informing and educating the public about SRHR, HIV/AIDS and holding government to its obligations.

“Reproductive health is not just a health issue – it is also a human right. Reproductive health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease in all matters relating to the reproductive system, its functions and processes. SRHR encompass health and wellbeing in matters related to sexual relations, pregnancy and birth,” he said.

“It follows from the above that reproductive health deals with the most intimate and private aspect of people’s lives, which can be difficult to write about and discuss publicly.”

Justice Dingake said cultural sensitivities and taboos surrounding sexuality often prevented people from seeking SRHR information and care.

“Yet, sexual and reproductive health affects the social and economic development of any country. When women die during childbirth or from AIDS, children are orphaned,” he said.

“Girls often drop out of school to take care of their siblings. Deprived of education, they later become a burden to their countries. Without education, girls often marry and begin having children early, which can jeopardise their health and limit their opportunities to contribute to their health and limit their opportunities to contribute to their own development, those of their families, communities and countries.”

The media, Justice Dingake noted, plays an important role in bringing SRHR issues to the attention of people who can influence public health policies. He said the media could bring taboo subjects in the open for discussion and monitor government’s progress in achieving stated goals through an approach which encompasses participation, inclusion and accountability.

“This approach views citizens not as passive receivers of services or beneficiaries of programmes, but as active rights holders, who should be empowered to claim their rights,” Justice Dingake said.

He said media coverage in the SADC region on SRHR issues was not satisfactory because of weak capacity and motivation to report on the issues.

“According to some authorities, the interest of the media in the area of SRHR is often dominated by announcements of new drugs or official health campaigns,” said Justice Dingake.

“This criticism notwithstanding, it must be pointed out that the media’s lack of capacity or motivation is not the only problem; researchers also often lack the capacity to simplify their research or to present it in a way that captures the media’s interest.”

He added: “In this era, where the ideology of patriarchy is still dominant and religious intolerance high, a capacitated media can assist in promoting SRHR and in bringing down the walls of prejudice, discrimination and stigma that still haunt the fight against HIV. “

Justice Dingake added that journalists must play their watchdog role over judges and criticise court decisions whenever necessary to ensure they do not depart from their constitutional mandate.

“Do not hesitate to criticise judges if they betray their constitutional oath of office. We are not infallible, neither are we untouchable angels,” he said.

“A critical appraisal of our judgments is necessitated by the fact that the law is fraught with illusion; the illusion that law and justice mean the same thing. What I can say and say unapologetically is the ultimate objective of the law must be the welfare of the people.”

In her remarks, Ms Shao echoed similar sentiments by calling on the media to partner policymakers in bringing SRHR issues on the agenda.

“Sexual and reproductive health rights are very important as they affect everyone in our communities. Violations of such rights should be nipped in the bud, and it is through partnering with the media that we can address the root causes,” she said.

“I urge the media to educate, inform and communicate the masses by making SRHR issues a matter of priority in their reportage. This would go a long way in ensuring that human rights are respected and protected. Parliaments also the responsibility of enacting laws that support the fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic.”

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