I descended upon the city through drizzle in true Seattle fashion, the Olympic Mountains revealing themselves in the distance. A local next to me argued against Seattle’s reputation for unyielding damp weather and boasted that the previous four days were dry and full of sunshine.
Rain or shine Seattle was brimming with energy and dialogue, as The University of Washington hosted the 11th Annual Western Regional International Health Conference (WRIHC) April 4-6, themed “Uncensored: Gender, Sexuality, & Social Movements in Global Health.” The largest student lead conference in the nation, nearly 600 attendees from around the country and the globe joined the dialogue around gender and sexuality, topics too often stigmatized and neglected. I was there as an alumna of three different Child Family Health International (CFHI) global health education programs, representing CFHI amongst an army of global health enthusiasts.
Jessica Stern, Executive Director of International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), boldly declared, “It is not an option to silence sexuality. It’s everyone’s business to talk about these issues and more importantly, we need to talk about the sex we actually have, not the sex we pretend to have.”
The conference kicked off with a fiery presentation by keynote speaker Stella Nyanzi, PhD. A native to Uganda and a seasoned medical anthropologist, Dr. Nyanzi has worked extensively on youth sexuality and sexual and reproductive health issues in East Africa and contributed notable social science research and academic literature surrounding these topics. She encouraged the audience to not waste any time and to ‘uncensor’ gender, sexuality and social movements –the hardcore issues. She wasn’t kidding and even stunned the audience with the use of curse words, repeatedly followed by, “Pardon me, but I thought this conference was uncensored?” The diverse crowd immediately took to her, listening intently as she urged all in attendance to mobilize against issues that, whether we realize it or not, are relevant to us all.
Simply being in that room meant we were all comrades in the struggle for global health no matter what our focus, being that gender and sexuality permeate all aspects of health. Don’t forget, she sternly reminded us, that health transcends the mere absence of disease. “Become radical in a radical way and stop doing business as usual. Global health is about the global North and South. Arrive in foreign lands with a teachable spirit and empower everyone involved.”
Those with a teachable spirit can learn more about sexual and reproductive health issues touched upon during the WRIHC event. CFHI’s Sexual Health as a Human Right: Ecuador’s Unique Model in Quito, Ecuador affords understanding of sexual and reproductive health issues in Ecuador, the first Latin American country to guarantee sexual rights in the constitution despite a conservative societal context. Participants learn and help devise and execute educational and outreach strategies to take out into the community.
Going forward it’s imperative to continue ‘uncensoring’ topics, such as sexuality and gender. Jessica Stern from IGLHRC reminded us, “Sexuality is not just homosexuality. We all have sexual identities and sexual health is a human right.” Carlton Rounds, Founder of Volunteer Positive, urged the crowd to “lead with your stigma.”
Thanks to three time CFHI alumna Lyndsey Brahm for authoring this blog post.