‘Reproductive Rights rest on the recognition of the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. This should also include the right of all to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence.‘ International Cairo Programme of Action, 1994
“We have failed. We have failed the Principles set under the International Cairo Programme of Action, 1994. We have nothing to celebrate.” These were the words of the one of the speakers in the opening sessions of the 5th Asia Pacific Conference on Sexual and Reproductive Rights Beijing, China. “Women are being treated as consumers, either they can pay for health care, or they die” commented another speaker. As dismal maternal mortality statistics in developing countries were heard, it was clear that governments across the developing world continue to sit on their hands, as women continue to be denied essential medical assistance, and die avoidable deaths.
Targets set under the Millennium Development Goal 5 - Reduction in Maternal Mortalities - and 5b addressing Reproductive Rights such as access to Family Planning continue to be only numbers on paper. “Some governments do not spend even one cent out of their own health budgets on providing family planning and contraceptives, not even to buy a condom. Of all the MDGs goal no. 5 to reduce maternal mortalities has made the least progress.” These were some of the shocking statements at the conference.
While governments continue to lack the political will to implement reproductive rights, there are examples of a growing wave of unrest in the face of this failure. And this unrest is finding a space to be heard in the courtrooms across some of the developing countries such as Nepal, Philippines and India. India is leading the way in the number of public interest litigation cases being filed against both the State and Central government of India, bringing cases which challenge the failure to enforce the right to life of women giving birth.
In some cases Indian courts have ordered hospital administrations to arrange re-admittance and provide free and immediate medical treatment to women who were previously denied medical treatment due to their poverty and social status. In another state level case in Madhya Pradesh, the High Court instructed a court representative to conduct a fact finding mission to ensure the court’s directions were being complied with on the ground. These instructions included the establishment of a blood bank, construction of a water bore and the supply of electricity to medical facilities. In two cases criminal proceedings have been initiated against medical staff who refused admission to pregnant women. The women were forced to give birth outside the hospital gates, as hospital staff looked on. Due to a lack of medical assistance the babies died. In a similar situation, a court in Uttar Pradesh took a suo moto decision and ordered compensation to be paid to the woman.
In Nepal the Supreme Court has ordered the Nepal government to enact a comprehensive abortion law to guarantee that women have access to safe and affordable abortion services. Since 2002, Nepalese law has permitted abortion under most circumstances, but multiple barriers—including the government’s failure to implement its own policy, prohibitive costs, and inadequate availability of abortion providers—have prevented women from accessing safe abortion services. Under the court ruling, the government must set up a fund to cover the cost of abortion for poor and rural women, and invest enough resources to meet the demand for abortion services and to educate the public and health service providers about the existing abortion law.
In the Philippines, civil groups have filed a case challenging the blanket ban of contraceptives in the capital city of Manila.
Outside the courts, in villages and towns across other South Asian countries, the tide is also turning, and this time it is young people who are taking a stand. Youth participation was very high at the conference, with whole sections of the main halls filled with a sea of young people who were engaging energetically with government officials, state representatives and NGOs to discuss the way forward. Young people were seen enthusiastically recording and discussing their thoughts, on blog sessions and through other media channels, back to their home countries and communities. NGOs reported that in rural villages in Pakistan, young women and girls were advising that it was not enough that they were educated and trained about their rights, that it was equally important to train their fathers, brothers, men and boys in their community in these critical issues, in order for there to be real change.
Throughout the discussions, the unanimous consensus was that Governments were not acting fast enough to stop women and girls dying avoidable deaths. Deaths that are a result of gender discrimination on an unprecedented scale.