MORE than 100 years ago in August 1910, women who had gathered at the International Women’s Conference in Copenhagen decided to organise an annual International Women’s Day – as a strategy to promote equal rights for women and rally for support for suffrage.
Since 1911, women have been marching on this day to demand for the rights necessary for women to be equal citizens in our societies. In the early days the pressing issues were the right to vote, the right to hold public office, the right to work. In later years, women have fought for and won various other rights – economic, social and political.
On this International Women’s Day, I wanted to record that the most significant shift I saw last year was the creation of #SheDecides. It started off with a bold social media response by Lilianne Ploumen, the then-Dutch Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, to counter President Trump’s reinstatement and expansion of the Global Gag Rule – which denies funding for any organisation that delivers or advocates for safe abortion services. Lilianne pledged that the government of the Netherlands will stand up and support unilaterally – women’s right to decide and choose.
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The swift response saw the governments of Belgium, Denmark and Sweden follow up with their commitments to reaffirm and protect women’s autonomy and agency. Within a month, more than 50 countries, foundations and organisations joined. They were united by a vision, that we would all step up, stand up and speak up for women’s and girls’ rights to decide for themselves and to have choices on critical decisions which affect their lives: Who to love? Who to marry, when to marry or not to marry at all? Whether or not to have children, when to have children, how many children to have and how often? How we can enjoy pleasure? In which ways may pleasure be enjoyed?
It was momentous simply because sexual and reproductive rights are amongst the most contested rights and here so many varied stakeholders were visible and vociferous in their support of these rights. Committed policymakers and activists know that access to safe abortion is used as the ‘deal-breaker’ issue to deny women and girls a comprehensive range of sexual and reproductive health services. But the real target of conservative attack is the very idea of individual sexual and reproductive autonomy, and the aim is to whittle down these fundamental freedoms to naught.
These include a range of issues such as access to contraceptive services, comprehensive sexuality education, respect and recognition of sexual and gender diversity and a denial of services to most at risk populations. This attack also calls service providers, health professionals, on-the-ground implementers to set aside sound public health practice, reject evidence-based policymaking and to ignore scientific and medical expertise.
ARROW and her 73 partners were amongst the first to strongly support SheDecides, because we strongly felt that our region needs a SheDecides paradigm shift. The United States is not alone in its reversal of women’s fortunes.
In 2015, around 85,000 women in the Asia-Pacific died through causes related to pregnancy or childbirth, according to UNFPA. This meant that every single day, on average, over 200 families suffered the loss of a loved one. The average maternal mortality rate in the region is extremely high at 127 per 100,000 live births, compared to the developed-country average of just 12 per 100,000. And 9 of every 10 maternal deaths in Asia-Pacific occur in just 12 countries. What’s worse is that up to 90 per cent of these deaths could have been prevented through quality antenatal, obstetric and perinatal care – including care given by midwives and skilled birth attendants.
Young women bear the double burden of age and gender. Some 12.8 million adolescent girls worldwide have an unmet need for family planning and about half live in Asia-Pacific region. Never-married women, including adolescents and young women, have a great disadvantage in obtaining contraceptives largely due to stigma attached to being sexually active before marriage. About 63 percent of the adolescent pregnancies in the region are unintended. Almost 1 in 10 girls who fall pregnant by the age of 16 live in South and Southeast Asia.
Governments in our region too need to be cognisant and help promote, protect and fulfil the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of women and girls. SRHR is a prerequisite for gender equality because they encompass three core elements integral to individual autonomy: the right to freely decide on matters of sexuality and reproduction; the right to consent; the right to have bodily integrity.
SRHR issues, worldwide, are not only the result of gender inequality but also of socioeconomic inequality. In every country around the world, women who are poorer, lesser educated, or belong to marginalised groups (indigenous, disabled, ethnic minorities) suffer from poorer sexual and reproductive health outcomes compared to their better educated and wealthier sisters.
There is no doubt in my mind that the sexual and reproductive rights agenda is the defining equality struggle of this century.
This agenda must be both total and inclusive. We cannot cherry-pick amongst these rights or amongst the recipients of those rights. We have to stand up for women and girls still at the margins and help begin the march to the center because when She Decides the world is better, stronger and safer.
Sivananthi Thanenthiran is the Executive Director of the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW), a regional NGO based in Malaysia championing sexual and reproductive health and rights, and a SheDecides Champion for Asia Pacific. Sivananthi has co-authored “Reclaiming & Redefining Rights: The Status of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Asia and the Pacific” in 2009 and 2013. She has presented papers on sexual and reproductive health and rights at the UN in Bangkok and New York.