The Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Center for Women (ARROW)
Across the Asia Pacific region, as in other parts of the world, patriarchal and fundamentalist religious views routinely limit women’s exercise of their sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and often sanction violence against women.i Asia has the world’s largest population, and the highest number of unsafe abortions – about 9.2 million each year. Nearly half of the world’s unsafe abortions take place in Asia; almost one-third of abortions are carried out in South Asia alone.ii Taboos and lack of knowledge about abortion laws – even among service providers – continue to be an issue in Nepal, Pakistan, and India.
An innovative leader in the field of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights in Asia since its inception in 1993, the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Center for Women (ARROW) in Malaysia was founded to meet the demand for practical information and data on gender sensitization, reproductive health and rights, and violence against women. The group’s original vision was to create a resource center that would enable women to better define and control their lives. Since then, the organization has quickly expanded to include the monitoring of key international commitments related to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), evidence- based advocacy, movement building through partnerships, and organizational capacity-building in its list of activities. It is precisely these changes that Maria Melinda Ando, Program Officer and Managing Editor of ARROW’s peer-reviewed bulletin, ARROWs for Change, says have enabled ARROW to remain relevant and move with the times.
ARROW’s holistic, far-reaching information and advocacy programs have enabled it to make a big impact on society, reaching stakeholders advancing SRHR and women’s health in more than 120 countries worldwide. The organization’s extensive research coverage is easily indicated by its completion of 14 national research projects, three thematic papers, and 10 national-level policy briefs to date, in conjunction with 22 partners. Additionally, ARROW’s focus on the intersection of SRHR with other development issues, such as poverty, food security, climate change, migration, and religious fundamentalism, ensures that the information and data it collects is comprehensive and addresses all areas of women’s issues and human rights.
Since 1997, the Global Fund for Women has invested $139,573 through 12 grants in support of ARROW’s work to advance health and sexual and reproductive rights. Given the challenge of religious fundamentalism and other barriers to women’s rights throughout the region, ARROW’s staff indicates that the group’s relationship with the Global Fund for Women has been particularly helpful in providing it with the travel grants needed to participate in key regional and global conferences. This has been instrumental in enabling ARROW to secure the needed space to hold public discourses on key issues, for which they cannot secure other funding.
Currently, ARROW bases its programmatic model on three key strategies: monitoring and research for evidence-based advocacy; Strategic information and communications for change; and Strengthening partnerships for advocacy.
All three strategies are key to ensuring that regional and global women advocates and organizations have access to the relevant information they need to make key decisions concerning women’s SRHR, and are also part of a global movement for systematic change.
The first of ARROW’s core strategies – monitoring and research for evidence-based advocacy – is used to ensure that international bodies and national governments are held accountable for their commitments to advancing women’s SRHR in the Global South. Utilizing this strategy, ARROW carefully charts the regional and national progress on these commitments made at global meetings – including the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action (ICPD PoA), the Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women Platform of Action (BPfA), and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). At these conferences, the organization offers its unique gender, rights-based, and Southern perspective on the monitoring frameworks, indicators, and data commonly used by United Nations agencies, donors, and SRHR non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and suggests alternative frameworks as a result.
A team of highly experienced volunteer lawyers undertakes much of the Federation’s critical legal work on behalf of the Polish women. The Federation considers the creation of a country-wide network of 56 lawyers to be one of its key achievements. It is also a great example of the organization’s collaborative approach. The network consists of lawyers in various parts of the country who provide free counseling services and legal representation in courts. At the same time, the network acts as a consultative body to the Federation, assisting with the preparation of legal opinions and statements. The lawyers provided representation to plaintiffs in several landmark cases brought by the Federation to Polish and international courts. In one such recent example, in the R.R. v. Poland case, the European Court of Human Rights for the first time in Europe’s reproductive rights history, ruled in 2011 that denying a pregnant woman diagnostic services and keeping her uninformed about the health of her fetus was a violation of her human rights.
ARROW is the only organization that consistently monitored the five-year (1999), 10-year (2004), and 15-year (2009) implementation of ICPD implementation in the region. The +15 monitoring project covered 12 Asian countries and was conducted in collaboration with 22 national level, women’s health and rights NGOs, individual researchers, and activists. It resulted in the publication, Reclaiming and Redefining Rights ICPD+15 Status of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Asia, which provides regional analysis of the trends and actions that need to be in place for the full realization of SRHR in the region. The project also produced the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Database of Indicators (http://www.srhrdatabase.org/). Since then, several groups have used ARROW’s national level ICPD+15 research findings to further their national advocacies. These advocacy efforts have consisted of: repealing policy directives (such as in the campaign for the repeal of EO 003 in Manila, Philippines, which eliminated government funding for contraception); pushing for amendments to existing laws and policies (Indonesia’s health bill amending the abortion law; Nepal’s policy on providing free surgery for uterine prolapse); providing evidence to support the passage of pending bills (Philippines’s RH bill); contributing to the shaping of policy directives (Malaysian Strategic Population Plan; Vietnam’s RH Strategy Plan 2011-2020); and fully implementing existing laws (Malaysia).
The second of ARROW’s key strategies – and the one that lies at the core of its ability to monitor international commitments so accurately and faithfully – is its strategy dedicated to obtaining information and communications for change. Nicknamed “InfoCom” for brevity, this methodology consists of the strategic collection, creation, distillation, and dissemination of regional information to SRHR organizations, advocates, and researchers based in the region and globally. This information is then used to conduct research, organize advocacy activities, prioritize and set agendas, and improve SRHR policy and program implementation. For example, ARROW’s SRHR Knowledge Management Sharing Center, “ASK-us!” is one of the few remaining women’s health and SRHR-dedicated resource centers in the region that maintains a comprehensive, up-to-date collection on women’s health. ASK-us! partners with Information Management Partnerships (IMP) to facilitate cross-organization and country sharing of information that is often inaccessible because it is only available within certain countries or local languages. ASK-us! ensures that this information is shared online and in face-to-face interactions at meetings convened by ARROW and ASK-us!. Due to increase demand for real-time updates on activities and information, and to capture critical program lessons to generate ‘experiential knowledge’, ASK-us! has evolved from sharing of information into a ‘knowledge management’ role. Recently, ASK-us! put together a knowledge management strategy paper and experimented within its “Women’s Health and Rights Advocacy Partnership” (WHRAP) Southeast Asia project, with partners in seven countries by establishing a blog site at to exchange information. Women’s organizations throughout the region have utilized this resource to strengthen their advocacy efforts and shift the public discourse around SRHR.
While other NGOs also focus on data collection and dissemination to support women’s movements, ARROW is unique in its data collection methodology and utilization of technology to circulate its research. It maintains an impressive online and social media presence, with a personal website, blog, Facebook page, online knowledge sharing center, and online marketing strategy. The group also maintains a database of SRHR indicators on its website, including country-specific data on abortion, contraception, maternal mortality, rape, gender-based violence, life expectancy, and related topics. This diversity displays the group’s ability to adapt to changing trends in communication patterns.
Furthermore, ARROW’s methodological approach to research and data collection involves the active participation of the women’s groups that it benefits. This participatory methodology ensures that the collected information is relevant to the demands of beneficiaries, and enables the group to maintain an intimate connection with the women’s movement. ARROW was among the first organizations to address the gap between policies concerning women’s rights and the actual inclusion of the female perspective in making these policies. It is a cyclical process that has contributed greatly to the organization’s success. They link their research seamlessly with the NGO and civil society sector, which is unprecedented in comparison to other research and data collection centers in the region. They stand out in their ability to gather data from civil society and present it to government authorities to garner change.
ARROW’s program model ties its research to its own advocacy at national, regional, and global venues in collaboration with its partners. The group’s third key strategy – strengthen partnerships for advocacy – has led it to create the “Women’s Health and Rights Advocacy Partnership” (WHRAP) program to bring together women and youth-led NGOs committed to strengthening civil society capacity to effectively advocate for marginalized women and young people’s SRHR. Currently, ARROW works directly with more than 30 national partners in at least 15 countries across the Asia Pacific region, as well as with regional organizations in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. “Identifying the gap between government commitments to international laws and policies with actual realities on the ground is the first step in the WHRAP strategy,” says Ando. Her description of the process of change harkens to that of a ripple effect, in which community-based organizations (CBOs), with ARROW’s training and support, first work with target beneficiaries to assess the quality of its services. This analysis then is used to mobilize demand for improvements in services for women at the state, national, and international levels.
WHRAP South Asia regional partnership demonstrates this work with national and regional groups to demand government accountability highlighting a ‘Rights-Based Continuum Quality of Care for Women’s Reproductive Health.’ WHRAP South Asia recently held an ‘Advocacy Allies Meeting’ in March 2012 in Dhaka, Bangladesh to raise the visibility of WHRAP South Asia by sharing its regional work and efforts in Bangladesh, and to receive support from participants and partners on its advocacy issues. The meeting gathered 41 people representing WHRAP South Asia’s national and regional partners, Government of Bangladesh representatives (two MPs and institutes), women’s movements, multilaterals, research institutes, and service providers. It was crucial in gaining support on a broader level and in calling for all governments in the region to audit all maternal deaths, implement safe abortion programs, and highlight the critical role of traditional birth attendants in improving maternal health. At the conclusion of the meeting, WHRAP South Asia reported, “The MPs also said that they benefited from these discussions, as it helped them to rethink issues, and aid them when policies are being drawn up.”
The upcoming Beijing Platform for Action, ICPD+20 (International Conference on Population and Development), and post-MDGs reviews are critical opportunities for civil society to ensure that SRHR are integrated into key international development frameworks when the MDGs expire. ARROW’s strategic partnerships with the UN and bilateral agencies connect various stakeholders at different levels and provide a space for and enable the direct inclusion of voices from the global South and civil society within these reviews. In May 2012, ARROW organized two regional convenings in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with support from GIZ (German bilateral) and UNFPA to partner with Asia and Pacific NGOs to revitalize SRHR in connection with sustainable development and to strategize for the lead-up to the ICPD+20 and post-MDGs reviews. These convenings were comprised of 121 advocates, activists, and NGO representatives from across 27 countries, including many of the Global Fund for Women’s past and current grantees, (CHETNA India, FWRM, Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre, Beyond Beijing Committee), as well as other groups. The meeting resulted in the “Kuala Lumpur Call to Action” outcome document calling for the “inclusion and prioritization of women and young people’s SRHR in new development frameworks that take stock of current consensus documents and move beyond them to fully achieve our human rights.” This ‘call to action’ document provides a guideline for countries in each sub-region to develop sub- regional plans of action to be included in regional plans of action as part of the UN review process.
The group has also partnered with Catholics for Choice to convene the Global Advocacy Planning Meeting on Religious Fundamentalisms in Indonesia last October. The meeting consisted of roughly 25 participants from India, Indonesia, Lebanon, Malaysia, Philippines, Pakistan, the United States, and the United Kingdom. During this time, panelists discussed how religious extremist groups were affecting the SRHR movement, and developed strategies to counter the efforts of these groups. As a result of the meeting, ARROW and Catholics for Choice initiated the Global Interfaith and Secular Alliance (GISA) to promote international cooperation in dealing with religious extremist opposition in the SRHR sector.
Along with engaging in cooperative problem solving on an international level, ARROW also conducts internal evaluations with the goal of constantly improving its organizational strategies. These evaluations are conducted on all of its organized activities, which may range from planning meetings to international conferences, and include mid-term and final evaluations. ARROW’s final annual report is the published product of its efforts to continuously improve itself on many fronts: strategically, technologically, and organizationally.
ARROW connects and bridges international stakeholders with country level and global South voices to engage with each other in a collaborative and meaningful way. ARROW’s relationships with key international partners (UN, bilaterals, multilaterals, INGOs, local civil society, and women’s groups); credible reputation; and convening power provide a link between high-level international stakeholders and local community groups who otherwise would not have the access to such platforms and high-level stakeholders. ARROW partners with stakeholders at different levels to identify strategic opportunities, bring people and organizations together to work collaboratively, and develop critical spaces for local voices – Global South, women, young people, and at the country level – to be represented in a meaningful way and for their views to be integrated into key international and regional development review processes.
ARROW is one of the very few research hub/think tanks in Asia Pacific bridging the information divide, bringing research into action, and building local capacity to promote partners’ engagement in evidence-based advocacy at the national, regional, and international levels. ARROW’s combined knowledge of the region and success in linking SRHR with other development issues, its ability to document and collaboratively monitor SRHR progress in the region, its information and sharing platforms, and its work in building capacity of regional partners, not only helps to bridge the information divide but provide local partners with the information that is critical for holding governments accountable and conducting evidence-based advocacy with national governments and regional and international stakeholders. ARROW’s collaboration with local, in-country research partners, specifically through the development of 79 SRHR indicators to monitor ICPD commitment, provides nuanced and contextual information for civil society to monitor government accountability to achieve universal access to SRHR.