25th July, 2004  Volume 11, Issue
2

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ISSUES

Dark side of the Women's Rights Bill

By Sunila Abeysekera

There is some public discussion going on these days regarding the proposed Women's Rights Bill. Many of the contributions attempt to mislead the public regarding the draft bill that has been released to the public for consultation purposes by the Women's Affairs Ministry.

Among the main arguments is the claim that the bill tries to legalise abortion on the basis that liberalising and legalising abortion in Sri Lanka would demean marriage, the family and the dignity of women. It is quite unfortunate that most of those who oppose the liberalising of abortion laws do not seem to be aware that large numbers of women in this country die each year due to unsafe abortions. What could be more demeaning to dignity of our society as a whole than this?

Let us first clarify that the Women's Rights Bill is a bill that sets out to encompass many of the human rights that should accrue to women as equal citizens of this country, in keeping with the norms and standards established in international and national law. It seeks to create a mechanism, the National Commission on Women, which will have a mandate to monitor the implementation of this law. It incorporates key elements of the Women's Charter of Sri Lanka (1993) that is modeled on the UN convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which the government of Sri Lanka ratified in 1981. While feminists and women's rights activists are well aware of the limitations of the law, having guarantees of rights enshrined in legislation and policy remains key to the protection and promotion of women's rights.

Insult to women

The 'rights relating to child birth' as referred to in the draft bill cover a number of considerations regarding women's dignity and rights to make choices as rational adults including the right to control their fertility, to have access to safe contraceptive methods, to space their family in accordance with their wishes and the wishes of their partners, when possible, to seek medical care of their choice, to be free of forcible medical interventions such as caesarean operations without consultation and so on. However, this specific right has been taken out of context, and interpreted narrowly as being simply the right to abortion. This is an absolute canard and an insult to the dignity of all women.

The anti-abortion tirade is often extended to attacks on all forms of contraception, claiming that they are in fact abortifacient, meaning that they cause abortions. Indeed the purpose of all contraceptives is to prevent conception from taking place in a variety of ways. As feminists we believe that women have a right to live with dignity and in equality. The right to make decisions regarding our reproductive and sexual lives is critical to our well-being. Thus, while we have our own critique of contraceptive methods and their impact on women's health, we never juxtapose them in arguments that run the risk of undermining women's rights to informed choice.

The majority of women of this country lack resources and access to quality healthcare, especially when it comes to matters relating to their reproductive and sexual health. This situation is compounded by social conventions that deny women's right to make decisions regarding their health. The continued criminalisation and prosecution of abortion lends itself to more women dying and suffering permanent damage to their reproductive system because of illegal abortions. Some years back there was an outcry about an article that cited 500 as being the number of abortions performed in Sri Lanka on an average day. Many medical and health professionals bear testimony to the truth of this figure.

Hypocrisy

The hypocrisy that is generated by such a system of denial and criminalisation is blatant. In Sri Lanka, most people are aware that there are clinics in urban centres that provide 'menstrual regulation' services in sanitary conditions for a small payment. Many people go to these clinics on a daily basis. It is poor women, especially those from areas that are not well serviced in terms of transport or of healthcare services, who really face the risks of an unsafe abortion. The worst victims of the present abortion laws are the girls who have been raped by their fathers, brothers, grandfathers, neighbours, cousins and uncles, the victims of incest who at the age of 11 or 12,  are condemned by social narrow-mindedness to bear a child they do not want and to sacrifice their life for no fault of their own.

Tragic reality

Any probation officer, any gynaecologist, any social worker who has to see these girls who should rightfully be playing and enjoying their childhood now trapped in pregnancy and motherhood will bear testimony to the tragic reality.

In Sri Lanka, women's activists who deal with the women and girls who are the victims of present abortion laws have fought for the right to have legal abortions for over 20 years. The Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka has also spoken out in favour of the liberalisation of the present laws relating to abortion.

The FPA SL provides thousands of poor women with their only access to specialised reproductive and sexual health care and approaches the matter from the point of view of the huge material and social costs extracted by the failure to liberalise these outdated laws. The elimination of 'unsafe abortion,' meaning 'a procedure to terminate an unwanted pregnancy either by persons lacking the necessary skills or in an environment lacking the minimal standards or both' is a key objective of the IPPF and of the FPASL.

However, the resistance to the 1995 amendments to the penal code that proposed to liberalise the existing laws to enable safe abortions in the case of women who are pregnant due to incest and rape and in the case of a foetus being detected with congenital abnormalities, make it clear what we are up against.

Taken for granted

 In spite of there being a series of requirements to be fulfilled for an abortion to be carried out legally, such as certification from two doctors and the carrying out of the abortion in a government certified medical institution, MPs from all political, ethnic and religious persuasions were in agreement that this amendment should not even be tabled in parliament. This we take as an indication of the conservatism that prevails within all the decision-making structures and institutions of this country.

Women activists in Sri Lanka have long demanded equal rights and equal dignity in every sphere of life. Our demand has been that it is not the state nor religious leaders or family and community that should decide on our reproductive and sexual lives and futures. As a feminist and activist for women's rights, who has been actively involved in promoting safe abortions and the liberalisation of the existing laws relating to abortion in the country, I know that what we have advocated is not murder, nor is it the demeaning of the family or of women's dignity. As feminists, our call is for all women, regardless of their class or ethnicity or social status and so on, to have the right to choose for themselves with regard to their reproductive and sexual lives. It is this right that has been consistently denied to women through the centuries, treating her as chattel and slave, as property to be owned and controlled as a breeder whose offspring also needed to be owned and controlled.

More promiscuous

What comes through most clearly in all the resistance to allowing women to make choices regarding their reproductive and sexual life is the male fear of female sexuality and fertility. This is why the arguments always hinge on the fact that the availability of contraception and abortion would make women more promiscuous. Women who use contraceptives and demand that their male partners do so as well, are often viewed as 'easy' and 'available.' Because women get pregnant, they should be 'careful,' if not they are subject to punishment of the worse kind - social isolation, criminalisation, marginalisation.

Men can walk away from their responsibilities. The lack of focus on research and production of male contraceptives other than the condom is one fact that stands out in support of the patriarchal roots of such opinions and attitudes. Concepts such as that of the 'illegitimate' or 'fatherless' child defy biological fact and yet continue to provide social and legal sanction for male irresponsibility.

Thankfully, I know many responsible men who would say that it is indeed a woman's right to choose how and when to control her fertility and her sexuality, considering that it is her body and her emotions that bear the burden of pregnancy and childbirth and breast feeding of the infant. In any case, all rational women and men would challenge the reduction of women to mere instruments of pregnancy and child birth. Many women through the ages have obviously not subscribed to this view: if not, where would we find the Marie Curies, the Sarojini Naidus, the Graca Machels, the Anna Pavlovas and the Aung Sang Suu Kyis?

Women facing danger

As the anti-abortionists rant about the sanctity of life, let them spare a thought for those poor infants who are killed at birth, dumped in garbage heaps, left to be eaten by stray dogs and picked at by crows. Those who speak so highly of the rights of the foetus and of the unborn child should pay more attention to the rights of the already born women who die at the abortionist's hand. Who will defend their right to choose whether to be a mother or not, whether to bring up a child in poverty and stigma or not ?

What we should be doing is creating a society in which sexual violence against women does not exist, where women are valued for the full contribution that they make to society and not made to pay a price for the sins of others; a society in which men take responsibility for their actions and live with women in a spirit of true partnership. In a society in which every child is a wanted child, abortion will not be necessary.

Sadly, we live in a society in which the concept of the 'unwanted child' and the 'illegitimate child' is a hard reality that drives many women to risk their lives through unsafe abortions. We in Sri Lanka who seek to liberalise the abortion laws to enable women to expand their choices and their capacity to enjoy their human rights do so because we respect each individual human being and life itself.

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