Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Denying Women’s Reproductive Rights: An Executive Privilege or Human Rights Abuse?

A mother plays with the youngest of her nine children as the rest of the family share their meal of noodles and rice in Tondo, Manila. A local executive order banning the use of modern contraceptives here has stripped women of means to control their desired number of children. (Photo by Jes Aznar)
MANILA, Philippines (Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project / May 20, 2009) - What happens when women are too poor to pay for their own contraceptive supplies and long for the government to step in an offer simple support for an operation that would stop their unwanted pregnancies and enable them to take control of their lives?.

The answer is perhaps Ma. Victoria Pesimo, 30, one of 20 petitioners launching a suit against the government and the Manila City authorities who spoke out at the Forum For Family Planning and Development (FFPD) event here in January in Quezon City.

She carried her youngest baby, two-year-old Adrian, in her arms as she told listeners her story and how she and others were trying to change the law as a result.

Pesimo told the forum she had been denied contraceptive pills at the health center in her neighborhood because of Executive Order No. 003 issued by Former Manila mayor Jose L. Atienza, Jr.

Because the order encourages natural family planning and has not been rescinded, it has impacted negatively on Pesimo, who does not have any money to buy condoms. Nor could she afford to pay for ligation– a simple gynecological operation to prevent pregnancies. The family is dependent on her husband who is a seasonal construction worker without a steady job and so money is scarce enough as it is and barely enough to feed them.

Former civil servant Benjamin de Leon, now executive director of the FFPD is insistent that the government has to do more. “Family planning saves lives,” he says, and the poor will benefit if the government steps in to help. He was speaking at the 22nd Usapang POPDEV (Talks on Population and Development) forum last February 18 in Quezon City.

Pesimo explained how she was daunted by the cost of ligation offered at the Philippine General Hospital and had to go to Malabon where she heard that a health advocacy and services group Likhaan offered ligation.

Also speaking at the 22nd Usapang POPDEV, Dr. Junice Melgar, executive director of Likhaan, echoed De Leon’s complaint and argued it “was the obligation of the government to protect reproductive health rights and to make services available as a matter of human rights.”

“The Philippines,” Melgar claims, “is one of 60 countries where 4,000 women die each year through complications in giving birth.”

Just last week, the UN formerly requested the Philippines to improve its record on its mortality in childbirth.

According to Clara Rita Padilla, a lawyer and executive director of EnGendeRights, Inc., Pesimo is only one of countless poor women in Manila affected by the executive order. Poor women of childbearing age have taken “the brunt of former Mayor Atienza’s policy,” she says.

Padilla recalled asking the Family Planning Services of the Manila Health Department “for a measly PhP 5,250 (USD 112)” to provide medicines for 35 women who wanted to undergo ligation only to be told the department did not have the funds. “These are clear incidents of denial of women’s access to reproductive health care,” she says.

Padilla adds: “There were also many adolescents who started childbearing at 14-18 years of age and then continued childbearing successively. I have interviewed a 21-year old adolescent who had no access to sex education; no access to reproductive health education, no information and no services - and now she has six children: At 21!”

Hopes for change?

Unfortunately, the plight of Pesimo and those like her did not end when Alfredo Lim succeeded Atienza in 2007 and was reelected mayor.

“Every mayor has his priority,” said Dr. Mary Lorraine Sanchez, chief of the Manila Health Department by way of emphasizing the tough choices her boss is forced to make.

“Mayor Lim is the first to make health a priority. But he is grappling with a PhP 1.4 million (USD 29,787) deficit from the previous administration, and as a man of honor, he has promised to pay it (back). And so, rather than buy artificial contraceptives, he would rather buy essential medicines, vaccines and equipment,” she said.

But Albay Representative Edcel Lagman who is trying to shepherd his own reproductive health bill through Congress told the forum that the city “is not cash-strapped to help in responsible parenthood.”

In response, Sanchez and Dr. Enrique Samonte, another medical officer of the city, also say that artificial methods have always been accessible.

“Anybody can buy them from drugstores in the entire Manila area or to go to the national hospitals that surround Manila,” says Dr Samonte.

But that doesn’t much help those who can ill afford to buy them.

Legal challenges

Executive Order No. 003 did not go unchallenged –although it took eight years for a case to reach the Court of Appeals. Lawyers Elizabeth Pangalangan and Harry Roque represented the case on behalf of Pesimo and others in January last year. The court, however, ruled that the petitioners had failed to prove their poverty by their failure to include any income tax returns and that it was the wrong venue for the case.

Then the petitioners filed a motion for reconsideration which was denied and, they then filed a petition for certiorari at the Supreme Court, which threw it out last November saying one of the 20 petitioners had failed to sign the verification. Pesimo claims the woman who failed to sign was simply too sick to come and sign.

The petitioners have filed for reconsideration. They are refusing to give up and are trying to prove popular sentiment is against the executive order remaining in place.

A survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations (SWS) in December and termed 2008 Manila Omnibus Survey on Health, had its findings presented at the Usapang POPDEV conference in February. It claimed a clear majority (85 percent) in Manila supported the Reproductive Health Bill – a law which would give women like Pesimo more control over their own bodies.

Lawmakers believe the recent survey by the respected SWS group is an important milestone and achievement.

“I hope the Congress people of the six districts of Manila will see the light,” says Rep. Lagman. “The views of their people are almost unanimous. This poll should convince them. We are not responsible for the financial meltdown worldwide, but it is overpopulated countries like the Philippines which will have a harder time coping -an additional impetus to Congress to pass this bill.”

Expanding the advocacy nationwide

How else might the executive order be overturned? Another option is to pass a national level law that will repeal local and metropolitan laws contrary to it.

Such a law has been introduced by Lagman and passed to the House of Representatives and the Senate Technical Committee Working Group.

The Working Group invited the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) to its deliberations but Father Melvin Castro, executive secretary of the CBCP Episcopal Committee on Family and Life and other representatives of the Commission walked out of initial hearings in February.

Castro said at a press conference the day following his walk out that the CBCP would stop participating “if only to avoid being misconstrued as giving consent to the passage of the bill.”

Pampanga Bishop Paciano Aniceto meantime has called for protestors to respect the views of the Catholic Church and of its allies.

He has said the bill is “a violation of the right of the families of the pro-life movements, NGOs, basic ecclesial communities, all family organizations. So, it’s no longer just the fight of the bishops … it’s the fight of the Filipino family.”

Bring in the world

Advocates are now talking of trying to drum up international support in an effort to change the local executive order. Melissa Upreti of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights says that women’s groups in the US have been closely watching the struggle in the Philippines for reproductive health rights.

Upreti who is Senior Regional Manager and Legal Adviser for Asia, urges the Manila executive order to be seen through the lens of human rights and science above anything else.

She says: “It is problematic from a human rights perspective to use an ideological lens for public health. It can confuse people when morality is seen as a goal of the policy. People must have the right to decide on their problems and pursuing this right has economic and social implications. It is immoral to rob them of this right.”

Still globally, the executive order could be considered by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which urged the Philippine government back in 2006 to increase its promotion of reproductive health.

CEDAW experts have already suggested strengthening measures aimed at the prevention of unwanted pregnancies, including making a comprehensive range of contraceptives more widely available and “without any restriction.”

Yet another option is to “complain” about the executive order within the revocation by US President Barack Obama of his predecessor’s Global Gag Rule which stopped US funds from reaching international family planning groups that perform abortions in cases other than a threat to the woman's life, rape or incest.

Obama, who signed the repeal on January 23, 2009, said family planning issues should not be politicized and has won praise from activists.

While these national and global currents surround his mother, Adrian Pesimo plays on regardless. He is seen toying with a handful of 1 peso coins that have been given to him by his mother’s equally-poor co-petitioners.
They are probably unaware –or possibly they are simply all too aware of just how many of each is needed to buy just one contraceptive which would allow them and so many others to claim just a fleeting, momentary control of their lives for the first time ever. (Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project - Jes Aznar. The author is a freelance reporter specializing on women, children, reproductive health and religious issues.)

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