Manila's women fight for justice

Grace Davies
15 February 2008

Women's access to family planning advice and contraception is widely acknowledged as a universal human right, yet in many countries around the world, contraception and abortion services are restricted and, in some cases illegal. We have previously covered the global crisis of unsafe abortion and its daily toll on women's lives in this blog, and highlighted obstacles to change such as the United States' "global gag" rule.

Now the Center for Reproductive Rights has released a report "Imposing Misery" detailing the effects of the regressive ban on contraceptives imposed in Manila, Philippines, in 2000. They also report how the women and men of the city are fighting back. In January 2008, 20 women and men of Manila filed a case against the Mayor for the eight-year ban, arguing a violation of human rights, and irreparable damage to the health of women in the city.

Melissa Upreti, a Senior Legal Advisor for the Centre's Asia Program reports:

Religious zealotry in the name of morality rears its ugly head in many ways. One of the most extreme examples turned up in 2000 in Manila City, Philippines when the mayor there used his political authority to launch a crusade for "moral rejuvenation" by introducing an executive order which, on its face, simply "encourages" natural family planning, but in practice has led to a ban on artificial contraceptives. Condoms, pills and IUDs were pulled out of local hospitals and clinics. Today, contraception in the city is virtually non-existent and the women of Manila City have been suffering the consequences ever since.

Tina Montales*, 36, has eight children. When she wanted to have a tubal ligation (female sterilization) after her fourth pregnancy, she couldn't because the local hospital no longer offered the service. She worries about feeding her children on an income that's already barely enough to meet basic needs: "Our daily income is 150 pesos (3.28 USD/2.40 EUR) from scavenging...We make do with soy sauce or salt if we can't afford to buy ten pesos' (0.22 USD/0.16 EUR) cooked vegetable for lunch or dried fish for dinner."

Families have been driven to extreme poverty due to unintended pregnancies. The ban has produced long-term and irreversible effects on women's well-being and quality of life, in areas ranging from their health to their economic status to their personal relationships. It has had a particularly harmful effect on poor women. Just one of the stories we were told:

One woman on her eighth pregnancy said her life was put at risk during one delivery. She had a breech pregnancy and her doctor advised her not to get pregnant or she might die. Although her doctor very much wanted her to have a ligation, she was powerless to perform the surgery, despite serious concerns about the woman's health. Since neither contraception nor sterilization is available to her, she said, "I get nervous with every pregnancy. I think that the moment I give birth will be the time I will die."

Some women interviewed try to refuse sex with their partners as a way to avoid pregnancy, but many describe how this puts strains on their relationships and in some cases, even leads to sexual violence: "Sometimes when there's no money to buy condoms and I don't want to have sex with my husband, he gets angry and forces me. I tell him, 'Aren't you ashamed of yourself? You've got so many kids already and we don't have privacy.' Our house is very small; we sleep together with the kids. Only a thin wall separates us from the neighbours and I don't want them to hear us arguing so I just give in to what my husband wants."

These women's human rights have been violated in the name of religion. However, these women, who are largely poor, lacking formal education, and socially marginalized have not lost hope and more importantly, they have not lost their voice. On 30 January, 20 women, some accompanied by their husbands, embarked upon their own crusade, a crusade for justice. Led by a team of highly reputed Manila-based lawyers they filed a case in a national court in the Philippines claiming that their human rights have been violated by the mayoral order, and asking that it be declared unconstitutional and immediately revoked.

The right of individuals to control the number, spacing and timing of their children is a basic human right and an essential pre-condition to a life of dignity. All eyes are on the court now to see if it succumbs to religious ideology or upholds human rights. We hope it will be the latter.

*names have been changed to protect identities


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