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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

To whom do we turn?

By Rina Jimenez-David
First Posted 00:33:00 02/01/2008

MANILA, Philippines -- Gearing up for Women’s Month in March, a delegation of women, representing women’s groups, urban poor organizations, and an association of home-based workers visited the Senate Wednesday to lobby for the passage of the Magna Carta of Women.

The Magna Carta is an “omnibus law” that seeks to enshrine in our statutes equality between men and women, and to put in place measures to ensure the protection of women from violence and other forms of oppression, as well as to advance the welfare of marginalized women and those in “specially difficult circumstances,” such as survivors of disasters and violence.

In the House of Representatives, public hearings are about to start on a substitute bill on the Magna Carta crafted by the committee on women and gender equality, headed by Rep. Nanette Castelo-Daza of Quezon City. In the Senate, though, the committee on women, headed by Sen. Jamby Madrigal, has yet to call a meeting on the bills filed by six senators, including Senate President Manuel Villar. This is the reason women deemed it timely to pay a visit to the senators and urge them to speed up passage of the Magna Carta.

In fairness to Madrigal, she ordered staff members to meet with some of the delegation to discuss the provisions of the bill and possible resource persons to be invited during the hearings. She explained that she was waiting for the latest version of the proposed Magna Carta, stressing that she wanted a bill that was “strong” on provisions for marginalized women, especially from indigenous communities.

Other senators the delegation spoke to also expressed support for the Magna Carta, and it is our earnest hope that they would be willing to cross not just party lines but even personal interest to finally deliver a law guaranteeing women’s basic rights and ensuring full equality—not just in law but in actuality.
Here’s a case right in step with the Magna Carta.

* * *
What is the obligation of government when it comes to ensuring the health of citizens? If government service is all about delivering basic public services to the people, then certainly good health must be considered part of this menu of basic services. And if we consider family planning part of basic health, then is not a local government obligated to provide family planning and other reproductive health services to its citizenry?

These are the questions that 20 residents of depressed areas in Manila want answered, after they filed a suit with the Court of Appeals asking for the nullification of Executive Order 003, implemented during the nine-year Manila administration of then-mayor Lito Atienza, which “discouraged,” but in effect banned, “the use of artificial methods of contraception, like condoms, pills, intrauterine devices, surgical sterilization and others.”
The suit, filed in behalf of the residents by lawyers Harry Roque and Elizabeth Pangalangan, alleges that EO 003 prejudiced the “right to health and well-being” of poor couples.

A study on the impact of the policy on women, families, and even the medical community, conducted in part by Likhaan, a grassroots-based reproductive health advocacy group, detailed how the pull-out of family planning supplies and services from Manila health centers and hospitals resulted in more unwanted pregnancies and births, and more abortions. Indeed, birth rates in Manila rose steadily during the term of Atienza, in contrast to the decline in birth rates in Quezon City, a study has found. Unfortunately, the maternal mortality rate, or the number of deaths of women due to pregnancy and child birth, likewise rose in Manila during the same period, again in contrast to the decline in maternal mortality in Quezon City.
* * *

The suit may seem unnecessary because Atienza is no longer Manila mayor, and his son, who would have presumably continued to uphold the policy, lost in his electoral bid.

Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim was initially supportive of both the study and the suit. But as the lawyers, Likhaan and the couples who filed the suit put it, a definitive ruling from the courts is still necessary if only to send a message to other local government units and executives.

And what message would that be? Well, for one, that imposing a single method (natural family planning in Manila’s case) of family planning on couples not only violates their rights, but also threatens their health and the health of their children. If we believe that parents know best, then it should be up to each couple to decide how best they should manage their fertility and how large -- or small -- a family they want to have. Forcing women to get pregnant simply because they are too poor to buy their own contraceptives is forcing them to put their health at risk, especially if they are already too old or too sick for a healthy pregnancy. And then, when there are more children than the parents can feed or take care of, we can expect all the surviving children not only to be malnourished and sickly, but also at risk of dying.
* * *

Under the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration’s seemingly “hands-off” policy on population management, each local government unit is left to enact policies and allocate funds for family planning and other reproductive health needs. If the local executive is enlightened and genuinely concerned about the over-all health of his or her constituency then the people are assured at least of this basic service. But what if the local executive is either under the thumb of religious authority or indifferent to his people’s health status? What if the town is too poor and cannot afford to subsidize contraceptive supply?

When the national government chooses to wash its hands of responsibility on this crucial matter, to whom will mothers turn?