Over the last few weeks, women’s reproductive rights have dominated political coverage in the media globally. However, for every positive advancement, such as the recent ruling in Northern Ireland that its anti-abortion law is in breach of human rights law, there seems to be an equal regression; for example, the Irish attorney general’s statement that he is considering appealing the decision.
One need look no further than the state of Texas in the United States cutting Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood . This is an organization whose stated mission relates to the fundamental right of each individual throughout the world to manage his or her fertility, regardless of the individual’s income, marital status, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, national origin or residence, and it has been operating in the United States for nearly 100 years, with currently 700 health centers across the country. And this is an organization that has just suffered a tragic attack in Colorado Springs at one of its health centers where the lives of two civilians and one law-enforcement officer were lost. The latter, Ke’Arre Stewart, a 29-year-old father-of-two and Iraq War veteran, behaved in a heroic manner, running back into the building after he was shot, to warn people and try to save more lives.
The State of Texas decision shows how women’s individual reproductive choices are still subject to regulation even in a country like the United States that rightly prides itself on its democratic foundation. And the violence in Colorado Springs adds a tragic dimension to the situation.
What will it take for women to finally gain the power to control their own bodies?
The answer may be quite simple – women should be heavily involved in, if not leading the discussion of, the creation of policies pertaining to abortion and other reproductive health issues. If a woman experiences unwanted pregnancy, she should also be allowed to take a chance for abortion alternatives.
A close look at abortion laws worldwide in conjunction with the statistics of women in governments in the same countries as of November 1, 2015, helps to shed some light. According to this data, provided by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, women are seriously underrepresented in governments across the world that have enforced legislation that is lacking with respect to women’s reproductive health. Only two nations have a (slightly) higher percentage of women in parliament than men. These were Bolivia and Rwanda (data combines both the Lower House and Upper Houses/Senates), placing female representation at 51.8% and 57.5% respectively. Rwanda, with a significantly higher rate of female representation, saw women make massive progress after the Rwandan genocide in 1994 that was characterized by an exceptionally high rate of violence against women, as compared, for example, to the experience in Latin American and Caribbean countries, according to a study done by the Pan American Health Organization in 12 countries where data was available.
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Beyond the inherent fact that the diversity of a government ought to represent the diversity of its population, there certainly seems to be a correlation between the number of women in governments of certain countries and the restrictiveness of abortion laws in the same nations. In Peru, where women hold 22.3% of governmental seats, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women found as recently as 2011 that the government discriminated against women when it refused to provide legal abortion services to 13-year-old girl, despite the fact that carrying the pregnancy to term presented a health risk. This investigation came after a 2005 finding by the UN Human Rights Committee that the Peruvian government had violated a 17-year-old girls right to privacy and subjected her to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, among other” by denying her legal abortion services while she was carrying an anencephalic fetus, a usually fatal birth defect in which a baby is born without parts of the brain and skull and cannot function.
Unsurprisingly, the United States of America, being the site of the most recent violent attack on women’s rights, comes in 72nd in an Inter-Parliamentary Union ranking of women in 190 countries classified by descending order of the percentage of women in the lower or single House (for perspective, consider that Iraqi women hold office more frequently than American women – Iraq is ranked 46th ).
In recent months, women’s reproductive rights have taken the forefront in political debate and global legislation. In the United States, some Republican candidates for President have stood against Planned Parenthood, stringing together religious buzz words with a cry against “trafficking baby parts”, no doubt establishing an environment conducive to the kind of violence we have witnessed in the Colorado Springs shooting.
In Ireland, consistently in the news for its 19th century laws regarding abortion, women hold only 45 out of 226 seats in the Irish Parliament. The nation, laudably progressive in passing of a referendum legalizing same-sex marriage by popular vote, currently only allows abortions when the pregnancy endangers the life of the woman. Anyone convicted of enforcing of carrying out a termination (even in cases of incest and rape) is punishable by a life sentence, a law that dates back to 1861. As of November 30, 2015, Justice Horner of the high court in Belfast ruled that this law violated the basic human rights of women and girls – lest we think that the fight for basic reproductive rights for Ireland’s women is close to over, the Irish attorney general stated that he is considering appealing the decision.
It can hardly be presumed that women were consulted in any way, or even that they might feel free to speak without repercussion, on the change in a reproductive policy that impugns on what most globally presume a basic individual decision.
The Chinese government recently revised its legislation regarding the regulation of its population’s reproductive rights its one-child policy, allowing families to have two children each. According to an article written in January 2014 for the Journal of International Women’s studies, analysis of recent national Chinese surveys reveals a dearth of women in decision-making and political positions. In fact, author Benxing Zeng states that “…the dominant explanation given for women’s numerical under-representation in the lower level of [governance] structures, and in politics more generally, focuses on . . . the enduring drag of ‘feudal’ attitudes (e.g. women being constructed as inferior to men).” It can hardly be presumed that women were consulted in any way, or even that they might feel free to speak without repercussion, on the change in a reproductive policy that impugns on what most globally presume a basic individual decision.
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By contrast, once a patriarchal society prior to a 100 days of bloodshed during the genocide of 1994, Rwanda is now an example of a country that thrives after its women rebuilt.
Prior to the genocide, Rwandan woman had taken a backseat to household decisions, allowing men to determine how money was spent and to control political decisions. Following the genocide, the remaining population was 70% female; women stepped up to convey the needs of their communities, forming local councils, organizing a judiciary and even maintaining the land and providing the nation with sustenance.
With women in charge during the Rwandan rebuilding era, however, they began to have an equal voice in political meetings – female leadership is wholly credited with the strong recovery of a devastated nation.
While Bolivian women have not to date experienced the same success, the implication of the foregoing is clear. Women’s reproductive rights will only be respected when women themselves have the direct ability to do so in their own governments.
With this in mind, it is imperative that women have a stronger voice in their governments and in the type of legislation that is passed with respect to women’s reproductive choices.
Billions of women ought not to suffer at the hands of outdated policies simply because a conversation was avoided. It is time for policy change, and one cannot evoke any progress without involving the affected population.