Almost 20 years ago, the Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) took place in Cairo (1994). ICPD, also called the Cairo Consensus, declared women’s reproductive and health rights as fundamental to the well being of women and to the full political and economical participation of women.
In Paris last week, Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World), Planning Familial and Equilibres et populations hosted a briefing, titled: “Access to contraception, unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions: the state of reproductive rights and health in the global South.” The briefing panel consisted of Margarita Gonzales and Catherine Giboin, both of Medecins du Monde; Serge Sabier, from Equilibres et Populations; Lise Marie Dejean from Solidarité Fanm Ayisyen, SOFA, a Haitian feminist organization; and Véronique Séhier, of French Family Planning. They all agreed that the global conservative turn has had tremendous and destructive consequences for women. Serge Sabier, who participated in the drafting of the Cairo resolutions, said that today it would be impossible to get 172 countries to agree to sign such a document.
Véronique Séhier added that these rights are still not considered fundamental. The goals have not been reached. For young women, access to reproductive health services, and to education and education about sexuality in particular, is limited. In many regions, and not only in the South, contraceptives are difficult to obtain or unavailable. Meanwhile, many countries oppose the right to abortion. In Europe, three countries officially deny access to abortion services, thereby defying European law. Séhier insisted that no dissociation should be made between contraception and abortion; access to both is a fundamental right.
Catherine Giboin reminded the audience that data on reproductive health were almost non-existent until 1985. She then shared some data to show that evidence is not enough to have sound politics to support women’s rights. One fourth of women in the world have no access to contraceptives. In 2012, 73% of the women who did not receive the contraceptives they needed were in the poorest countries. About 40% of the pregnancies in the world are unwanted, and this rate climbs to about 60% in Latin America and the Caribbean. One out of ten births occur with girls between the age of 15 and 19. The ratio of unsafe abortions has increased from 44% in 1995 to 49% in 2008; 98% of unsafe abortions are in developing countries. In 2008, 47000 women died as a result of not having access to safe abortion and 8 million had complications. 40% of the world women live in countries that have very restrictive abortion legislations. Chile, Malta, Nicaragua, and El Salvador forbid abortion without exception.
Lise Marie Dejean put these data and numbers in the reality of Haitian women who represent 52% of the country’s population. Haiti’s high maternal mortality and high rate of complications after abortion have to be linked to women’s under-representation and invisibility in Haitian institutions and politics. Dejean affirmed the crucial role that the colonial and post-colonial patriarchal power has played, reminding the audience that contraceptive pills were tested on Haitian women, who now have little to no access to those very contraceptives. She insisted that women’s reproductive health and women’s health in general, are interdependent with women’s levels and quality of participation, women’s poverty, and rape. As Dejean noted, in Haiti “our body doesn’t belong to us, the patriarchal system has profited from this body to establish places of domination (des lieux de domination).” Across Latin American and the Caribbean, women are organizing to demand that their right to control their body be respected as well as their right to have equal participation in the decisions of their countries.
France’s Minister for Gender Equality, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, presented the position of her ministry. Although France has some problems of access to abortion services, its situation is still one of the best in the world, with free-of-charge reproductive services, including for undocumented immigrant women. Vallaud-Belkacem insisted on the commitment of France and its diplomacy in asserting women’s rights and also more practically in supporting women’s organizations through its embassies. One NGO representative asked how activists from poor countries who are often poor themselves could have a voice in international instances. Vallaud-Belkacem replied that feminist diplomacy is there to facilitate their travel and to increase the visibility and real participation of those activists in international conferences.
The Minister’s language radically departed from the usual monolithic paternalistic language that often prevails in such meetings. She recognized the difficulties and said that while her action in promoting women’s rights and also participation of feminist organizations has been oriented to francophone countries, she also inscribed that in a broader feminist diplomatic perspective. For example, at the conference des ambassadeurs (ambassador conference) in August 2013, she argued for a new diplomacy for women’s rights. Additionally, according to Vallaud-Belkacem, France is the fourth country in terms of financial aid in the world and 500 million Euros were dedicated between 2012 and 2014 to support reproductive health initiatives around the world.
A member of the Greek’s family planning and the vice president of UNICEF Greek committee then made a striking remark that demonstrated once again that women are the first affected by the neoliberal order, which begets crisis. In Greece, women’s rights registered a major set back when austerity measures privatized public services and gutted the social state. And so now 40% of the population cannot access health services. While abortion remains legal, it now costs too much for many Greek women. The fee for an abortion is about half a minimum monthly wage, and contraceptives are expensive and hard to find. Greece, which had a good health care system, has seen a significant increase in infant mortality.
Greece demonstrates the pervasiveness of the neoliberal order on women’s health and reproductive rights. The current reduction of women’s reproductive rights and health has to be recognized as part of a political and economic order rather than as some unfortunate situation.