Sexual and reproductive health and rights experts launch global research network

USC hosted nine international experts from Nov. 27 to 30 to discuss the state of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) around the world and to launch an international research network.

The group comprised researchers, activists and professors based in Belgium, Brazil, Cambodia, India, Malaysia, Mexico, the United Kingdom and the United States. The USC visit was organized because of longstanding collaborations with Professor Sofia Gruskin, who heads the USC Program on Global Health & Human Rights at the USC Institute for Global Health.

“These women are rock stars in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights,” Gruskin said. “In coming from different countries and academic disciplines, they are key to establishing quality research that improves lives around the world.”

They took turns speaking Nov. 28 at a two-part USC Global Health Lecture Series event, “The State of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Today: Research, Policies and Programs from Around the World.”

The event attracted more than a hundred students and faculty from across USC schools and neighboring universities.

The first half presented a global overview—the nuts and bolts of the history, politics and legal context within which SRHR issues are addressed and taught. Panelists included Marge Berer, editor of the internationally recognized journalReproductive Health Matters; Eszter Kismödi, human rights adviser to the World Health Organization; Jane Cottingham, independent researcher and consultant; and Pascale Allotey, global health professor at Monash University in Malaysia.

The second half took larger conceptual points raised in the first panel and showed how they play out in specific countries—sex-selective abortions in India, HIV-related stigma in Cambodia and maternal health in Brazil, among others. Presenters included TK Sundari Ravindran, professor and activist in India; Thérèse Delvaux, doctor and researcher at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Belgium; Simone Diniz, associate professor at the University of São Paulo in Brazil; Asha George, researcher and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins; and Adriana Ortiz-Ortega, professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

In addition to the event, the experts’ visit marked the inaugural steering committee meeting of the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Research Network, the first international SRHR research group of its kind.

“Until now, research methodologies and approaches have been inconsistent in framing sexual and reproductive health as human rights issues, so constructing this network is intended to strengthen this research on a global scale,” Gruskin said.

The idea to form a global research network solidified at a Malaysia meeting the group attended in 2010.

Having worked together for decades, it made sense for the close colleagues to form the steering committee, said TK Sundari Ravindran, who will co-chair the network with Gruskin.

“Some of us have known each other for 30 years and some for 20 years, and always in the context of collaborative work—for a research project, a journal, for developing a training initiative—so we know we work well together.”

The network intends to bring together researchers interested in the provision of health services—like delivery care for pregnant women—with those interested in prevention and treatment of diseases—such as HIV and sexually transmitted infections—with people working to ensure the rights and health of the people who need these services.

“What brings all of this together, under a SRHR rubric,” Gruskin said, “is the recognition that, whatever your particular focus, you can’t pay attention only to the health services available or only to the health condition you are working on or only to the specific population you’re concerned with. You have to pay attention to the larger economic, social, cultural and political context within which services are delivered, within which people live and within which people have sex.”

At the university level, the network will aim to open opportunities for faculty and students to research abroad at the network’s partner universities.

The network’s development comes at an essential time for the SRHR field, according to Marge Berer, who editsReproductive Health Matters.

Berer explained the fear that SRHR issues will be sidelined in 2015, when the United Nation Millennium Development Goals—which address several SRHR issues including HIV/AIDS, gender equality and maternal health—are supposed to have been achieved.

“The Millennium Development Goals are supposed to have reached fruition in three years’ time and all those sorts of idealistic goals, they won’t reach fruition,” she said. “And those goals linked to sexual and reproductive health and rights are the ones that have not been implemented the most.”

With the understanding that research often influences and motivates policy and action around the world, the group used the USC meeting to define the network’s future work including identifying areas for joint research and training, potential funding streams, and to solidify a governance structure.

The next step is to grow, Gruskin said, adding that other professor-researcher-activists working in this area will be encouraged to join the network.

“The more experts and quality researchers we get, the more successful we’ll be in ensuring the sexual and reproductive health and rights of all people,” she said. “And I think we’re on the right path.”