In a world with rising conservative and fundamentalist factions, what are the biggest challenges to your work with women and sexual and reproductive health rights? How will the reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule, and the Dutch announcement of a new international fund to finance access to birth control and abortion affect women in your country/region?
The Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW), based in Malaysia, is an ECOSOC-accredited NGO that has been working since 1993 to advance women’s health and rights, empowering women through information and knowledge by monitoring international commitments, advocacy and mobilisation. We work with national partners across the Asia-Pacific region, and national and regional partners from the global South.
The Asian-Pacific region, given its population, diversity, and socio-economic conditions, is a vibrant, dynamic and varied region. Demographically, it has one of the fastest growing youth in the world (750 million which is 60% of the global population) in addition to a large elderly population. Despite economic growth taking off in many countries, it continues to be affected by poverty, inequality, exclusion, and marginalisation. It is increasingly affected by climatic changes and environmental degradation. The growing influence of ethnic-nationalism, conservatism, and religious extremism across countries and religions in the region cannot be ignored.
Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) is integral to achieving human rights of women and girls. They have to be taken in totality and not selectively. SRHR is an integral part of women’s and girls’ rights to be free from discrimination, coercion and violence, and enshrines the principles of bodily integrity, dignity, equality, and respect for diversity.
Maternal mortality and morbidity continues to be one of the leading causes of death amongst women, including young women, in the Asia-Pacific region. The main causes of maternal mortality include excessive haemorrhaging and hypertension. Abortion and abortion-related complications, restrictive and inadequate abortion laws, unavailability of safe, legal and unconditional abortion services are key in driving these numbers higher. Women and girls have inadequate and unaffordable access to healthcare, lack access to contraceptive information and services, meet unavailability of skilled birth attendance, experience inadequate antenatal care coverage and emergency obstetric care services, and face violence, including during pregnancy.
In the region, women and girls’ access to information and services is often restricted by narrow policies, practices, mind-sets, beliefs, and traditions that are rooted in structural inequalities and patriarchal notions, that favour the control of men and boys over women and girls. These approaches perpetuate gender norms and notions of women’s bodies not being their own but the property of the state. These patriarchal notions are justified as socio-cultural and religious norms that use conservative and narrow interpretations to control their access to SRHR citing family “honour”, women’s reproductive role, and strengthening the following. Culture and religion are both dynamic, and there are progressive interpretations of religion, which do affirm, protect and fulfil the rights women and girls. Unfortunately in many societies, extreme interpretations of religion are utilised to place controls on women’s and girls’ rights, especially their SRHR.
The Mexico City Policy or the Global Gag Rule is a significant blow to efforts to ensure SRHR globally as well as in the region, and will exacerbate the above-mentioned situation. It clears the path for donors, as well as governments to justify cuts in funding for critically needed financial and technical resources that help ensure women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. It makes the environment even more difficult for women to access safe abortion, both in terms of restrictive laws and policies as well as availability of safe services. It puts non-government organizations who need funding in a difficult position on whether to continue their other services and yet avoid abortion services, referral, or advocacy, or to seek alternative funding and potentially close down services altogether. Thus, it affects access to contraception, comprehensive sexuality education, and services related to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and AIDS.
At the same time, this brings to the mainstream the narrow ideologies of conservatism and reinforces extremist notions of religion over women’s rights, bodily integrity and power; institutionalising and entrenching patriarchy and sexism even further in policies and programmes. Such conservatism cements pro-life arguments and actions towards limiting women’s SRHR, reducing women’s access to healthcare and adding to their inability to make informed decisions about their health. Further, it actively puts women’s lives in danger by withholding essential information and services with regard to women’s SRHR including, but not limited to, maternal mortality and morbidity, prevention of STIs, HIV and AIDs among others.
We are optimistic with the commitment of the Netherlands and others such as Belgium to make resources available globally that can be used to counter these male-led, conservative, narrow-minded, and patriarchal efforts. This will help deliver critical SRHR services and information to all women, especially the marginalised. These resources should be channelled to rights-based, women-led organisations and movements, including those working at the grassroots and those advocating for and providing access to and information on safe abortion. This will ensure that women can access these vital services and information.
We cannot forget the root causes of these measures – conservatism, religious extremism and patriarchy. These systemic factors do not seem to be receding. As feminist advocates, we have to prioritise and engage with these issues as part of our fight to ensure human rights for all, including SRHR. We need these struggles to be adequately resourced, to ensure discourse building, to bring feminist theologians to the fore, and develop counter narratives that can help efforts to dismantle these systems.
It is important to remember that this Rule and the related efforts to curtail women’s human rights will not stop here. As such, we have to intensify our advocacy efforts and work with pro-choice States, who can ensure that rights are upheld through greater resource allocation and commitment to join civil society forces in advocating for change.