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Global Roundup: Have We Failed in Promoting Women’s Rights?

Jessica Mack

Weekly global roundup: A Tibetan Nun Self-Immolates; women's rights activists are detained in Zimbabwe; gay rights under threat in Peru; and IPPF asks if we have failed at women's empowerment and development.

Welcome to our new Weekly Global Reproductive Justice Roundup! Each week, reporter Jessica Mack will summarize reproductive and sexual health and justice news from around the world.  We will still report in depth on some of these stories, but we want to make sure you get a sense of the rest and the best.

Tibetan Nun Self-Immolates

An 18-year old Tibetan nun, who self-immolated last week in China, brings the count of recent self-immolations past 20, in protest of China’s continued human rights oppressions. While the vast majority of recent self-immolations have been men, three have been women – all nuns, says the Tibetan Women’s Association. A teenage nun self-immolating is particularly shocking and has drawn global attention to the growing protest. Tibet was occupied by China in 1951, under the auspices of liberation. His Holiness the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 and Tibetan efforts to regain freedom and independence have raged since. There is a history of Tibetan monks and nuns in protest, in part because they are already cut off from society and are seen as having nothing, or less, to lose. Via Global Post.  

Zimbabwe Women’s Rights Activists Detained
Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu, founders of the social justice group Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) have been arrested and are being held on charges of theft and kidnapping. WOZA has 70,000 members countrywide, and hundreds have been arrested and detained over the years, including for peaceful protests. Williams herself has been arrested 40 times. Amnesty International is concerned that current charges against the women are trumped up and that justice will not be served. You can show your support for the women via email here. WOZA calls attention to social, economic, and rights inequities for women in the country, something authorities are none too keen on. Via Guardian. 

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Archbishop Desmond Tutu Knows What’s Holding India Back
“India is poised to become a very significant player but, that role would be greatly, greatly enhanced, when women are given their proper place.” India has emerged as a global giant in the last decade, becoming a global donor in its own right and recently brushing off British aid to the country as unnecessary and mere “peanuts.” Yet stark gender inequity remains, from high rates of unsafe abortion – despite liberal laws –  to child marriage and sex-selective abortion, both illegal but still widely practiced. Tutu is in India with members of The Elders, promoting their global movement against child marriage called “Girls Not Brides.” An estimated 10 million girls under age 18 are married each year without their permission. Via Reuters.

Gay Rights Still Outstanding in Peru
February 12 is being celebrated by Peruvian gay rights advocates as the anniversary of “Peru’s Stonewall,” a year after a group of GLBTQ activists were beaten by police for kissing publicly to protest discrimination. Queer rights in Peru are largely a non-starter, with a marked resistance to publicly debating or addressing such issues among the courts and the legislature. Hate crimes are not officially criminalized and numerous sexual orientation discriminatory suits have stagnated in the judicial system. An investigation by the group Homosexual Movement of Lima found that one person is killed each week in Peru because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity. Via BBC.

Gender and Global Development Debate in London
IPPF recently organized a debate, “Women’s Empowerment and Sustainable Development: Have We Failed?” which brought together global experts at London’s Royal Society. Leymah Gbowee, Liberian peace activist and Nobel Laureate spoke, as did members of the UK and Norwegian governments, and IPPF’s Director-General Tewodros Melesse. The debate is the first in a series that will be held on this topic, an intersection too often overlooked. “The world has failed to translate women’s power into sustainable development,” Gbowee said. You can watch the video of the debate here.  Via IPPF.  

Commentary Human Rights

Tackling Zika: Have We Learned Our Lesson on Rights?

Luisa Cabal

Local governments and public officials should look to the reproductive rights and HIV and AIDS movements for insights into the ways in which they can more effectively center the needs of those most marginalized while fighting the Zika virus outbreak.

Read more of our articles on the Zika virus here.

The Zika virus outbreak and the increase of babies being born with birth defects seemingly linked to the mosquito-transmitted disease have generated a series of prescriptions from governments of the most affected countries about what people need to do and not do. These include asking women to delay pregnancies—until 2018 in El Salvador, for example.

Sadly, these recommendations do not match what is in the realm of possibility for many women living in or near Latin America, the region from which we hail. We propose instead local governments and public officials look to the reproductive rights and HIV and AIDS movements for insights into the ways in which they can more effectively center the needs of those most marginalized while fighting this crisis.

Calls to delay pregnancy in several countries where the Zika virus has spread have revealed gaps in health systems resulting from unfulfilled demands for sexual and reproductive health-care services. While women in Latin America generally have access to contraception—a real demonstration of decades of activism and leadership—in some Central American countries such as Guatemala, over 26 percent of married young women who do not want to become pregnant have an unmet need for birth control, and therefore are at risk of an unintended pregnancy.

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In the regions that have seen a spike in Zika cases, there are also high rates of sexual violence. The World Health Organization reports that one in three women experience violence in her lifetime. Those rates in Peru, where health officials in late January confirmed the nation’s first case of Zika, appear to be higher: A 2005 report found more than half of women in Lima and Cusco experienced physical or sexual violence by a partner some time in their life.

Without access to contraception, many women, including some young girls, will experience unintended pregnancies. And once pregnant, women and girls do not have control over their own reproduction as the laws provide limited options for termination. In countries that have very restrictive abortion laws, women and girls face an even greater health crisis should they experience an unintended pregnancy, become infected with the Zika virus, and want an abortion.

In light of this situation, how realistic is it to expect the public to delay their pregnancies as they are prescribed to do? Is this top-down approach to tackling a health-care emergency grounded in the realities and needs of women? Are policymakers once again “instrumentalizing” women to solve a threat or a global challenge?

Activists have known for a long time what is needed at a structural level to ensure that women’s health and rights are respected and promoted. Reproductive rights and HIV and AIDS advocates have said it all along.

The response demands long-term commitments to three rights pillars: First, access to information and services. Women need access to information about the virus, including how to prevent transmission. They also have a right, as UN bodies have argued, to access the type of sexual and reproductive health services they need, including a range of contraceptive options. If pregnant, every woman should be able to decide if they will carry to term their pregnancy—and have access to safe abortion or maternal health care and social support services.

Second, governments and stakeholders need to scale up their commitments to protect women’s agency. Women have to be empowered to make choices regarding their own health, and those choices need to be respected. Women living with HIV have shared their painful experiences of being subjected to coercive sterilization or abortion and of having their right to reproductive autonomy erased. Advocates and policymakers need to reinforce the rights and dignity of women and show that respect for their decisions is at the center of any policy and health intervention. As we learned from the AIDS response, this work of fighting a global health crisis must start with the concerns of those most vulnerable and marginalized, and their voices must be heard at all times.

Lastly, in a world where leaders look for magic bullets and advance biomedical approaches as one-size-fits-all solutions to health challenges, governments and different stakeholders need to bolster all efforts aimed at eliminating discrimination and violence against women and girls. These efforts should include removing obstacles to reproductive health services, investing in the empowerment of adolescents, and training health providers to protect and promote women’s sexual and reproductive decision making. These interventions will ensure that when a crisis hits, all persons—whether women or those from other marginalized groups—are enjoying the legal, policy, and cultural conditions that recognize them as full citizens and agents of their health and lives.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of UNAIDS.

Analysis Human Rights

‘Why Such Violent Treatment of These Women in El Salvador?’ Asks Commission on Human Rights

Kathy Bougher

Earlier this month, Christina Quintanilla, who spent four years in prison after experiencing a miscarriage, testified in front of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about the effects of the El Salvador's total abortion ban on the country's women.

Read more of our coverage on the campaign for Las 17, the 17 Salvadoran women imprisoned on abortion-related charges, here.

In 2004, as an 18-year-old mother of a small child, Christina Quintanilla experienced a spontaneous abortion in the bathroom at her home, lost the fetus she was carrying, and lay unconscious and bleeding heavily.

Her mother took her to the hospital to get medical care, where doctors performed a dilation and curettage procedure, a frequent practice for miscarriages.

“While I was coming out of the anesthesia, I remember seeing a man dressed in blue,” Quintanilla told the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) earlier this month in Washington, D.C., along with recounting the rest of her story. “That seemed odd since doctors in El Salvador wear white.  The man asked me my name and then told me, ‘Christina Quintanillayou are under arrest for aggravated homicide!’ I was shocked.”

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Quintanilla continued, “I don’t understand how the Ministry of Health let someone come in to interrogate me when I was still barely conscious.”

Quintanilla, who ultimately spent four years in prison, was one of more than dozens of women in El Salvador who have been convicted and incarcerated for obstetric complications on charges related to the country’s total ban on abortion. Now 29, she had come to Washington, D.C. to testify in front of the IACHR, part of the Organization of American States (OAS), of which El Salvador is a member. The hearing not only highlighted Quintanilla’s story, which closely parallels that of many other women in the country; it also illuminated the Salvadoran government’s failure to acknowledge the real effect of its laws on its citizens.

El Salvador’s Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion), its sister organization, Colectiva Feminista para el Desarrollo Local (Feminist Collective for Local Development), and the New York City-based Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) had petitioned for last week’s hearing to compel the IACHR to make a report on the situation facing women in El Salvador, possibly leading to a change in the country’s strict abortion policy.

El Salvador has signed two OAS human rights conventions: the 1977 American Convention on Human Rights and the 1994 Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women. When a country signs on to conventions like these, they agree that their laws must correspond to them; the petitioners believe that this is not the case in El Salvador. If the IACHR agrees, it can make recommendations to governments to take particular actions; if those recommendations are not followed, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, also part of the OAS, could choose to legally require the country to do so.

“In August 2005, I was [sentenced] to prison for 30 years,” Quintanilla told the IACHR, describing a judicial process that included a public defender not knowing her name—suggesting the defender had not read her file before trial—and a forensic report for her stillborn infant that listed the cause of death as “undetermined.” “My case was in the media as, ‘woman sentenced to 30 years for killing her baby,’ and as a result my life was in danger in prison. A woman in prison for abortion is in more danger than someone who is there for extortion or drugs.”

Quintanilla is now working with the Agrupación, a feminist organization that fights for reproductive justice in El Salvador. The group helped to free Quintanilla in 2009; it has aided in the release of nine other women in jail on abortion-related charges to date. It also requested pardons for the group of women known as Las 17, who are also in prison with convictions related to obstetric emergencies, while at the same time laying the groundwork for a change in the legislation that prohibits all abortions.

In prison, Quintanilla “met a human rights lawyer who was concerned that I was convicted without any evidence,” she continued, describing an attorney who works closely with the Agrupación. “After attempting several legal procedures, he filed for a commutation of sentence, which shortened my sentence.”

Upon her release, Quintanilla recounted, “The court said there had been a ‘judicial error.’ That judicial error meant I spent four years in prison and lost contact with my family. When I got out the media didn’t say I had been imprisoned because of a ‘judicial error.’ I was still the woman convicted of murdering my baby. I still have a criminal record, and that makes life difficult for me to this day.”

Quintanilla asked the IACHR to make sure this didn’t happen to any other women, and to stand up for those still in prison.

Angelica Rivas, an attorney with the Agrupacion and the Colectiva Feminista, testified after Quintanilla as to violations of doctor-patient confidentiality, lack of adequate defense, and other various human rights violations she argued are common in the women’s cases. However, she also highlighted the gender stereotypes that tend to carry weight in the judicial proceedings. For example, she said, judges and prosecutors frequently invoke the stereotype of the “super mother,” who, even when unconscious herself, has the responsibility to save the life of her child. If she did not succeed in saving the child’s life, according to this logic, then she must have intended to murder her child.

Representatives from CRR requested that the IACHR visit the women’s prison in El Salvador to understand the situation in greater depth; that it solicit further information from the government; that it review other women’s pending cases; and that it hold the Salvadoran government accountable to the policies it promised to uphold with the signing of conventions.

The four Salvadoran government representatives present at the hearing opened their testimony by stating that they had not been told that the topic of the hearing was women imprisoned for charges resulting from obstetric emergencies. They had arrived, they said, prepared to discuss prison conditions for women, but nothing specifically related to women being incarcerated due to obstetric emergencies.

Although Quintanilla mentioned the dangers she faced in prison in her testimony, which have also been reported by Rewire, that was not why the petitioners had called the hearing. Government representatives proceeded to give testimony about various efforts and programs to improve prison conditions, but never once mentioned women imprisoned for obstetric emergencies.

After the government representatives had concluded their testimonies, IACHR rapporteur on the rights of the child Rosa María Ortiz opened the hearing’s question period by asking the Salvadoran government representatives, “Why such violent treatment of these women in El Salvador?” She then proceeded to list issues she wanted the government to respond to, including the role of religion, the role of the Ministry of Health in resolving problems in public hospitals—such as the fact that it is frequently physicians who report women to the police—and ways to prevent sending women to prison while these doubtful cases are being resolved. She also asked what happened to women who left children behind when they went to prison.

Tracy Robinson, IACHR rapporteur for the rights of women, commented, “I regret that the State has not been capable of responding.” She then asked the government officials to explain through what avenues, whether executive or legislative, the State would be able to resolve the problems of women imprisoned for obstetric complications as well as the further human rights violations they reportedly experience in prison.

IACHR President Rose-Marie Belle Antoine expressed her frustration with the lack of an adequate governmental response in the hearing and requested that the government respond in writing to the specific questions the IACHR raised, which they agreed to do.

Paula Avila-Guillen, CRR’s attorney and program specialist, pointed out that she herself had met with government officials more than once in El Salvador, discussing ways to mitigate the criminalization of women; the failure to observe doctor-patient confidentiality; and the need to differentiate between spontaneous abortion or miscarriage, an obstetric emergency, and an induced abortion. In spite of those conversations, she noted, “the cases continue to come from the hospitals.”

There is not yet a definitive date by which the IACHR will issue its report on the hearing, especially since it must await the written responses from the Salvadoran government.

Katia Recinos, Agrupación legal team coordinator, expressed in an email to Rewire her “indignation” about the government’s failure to prepare for the hearing, noting that this demonstrates “how very far officials are from understanding the situation of women imprisoned for having obstetric emergencies.”

Recinos is hopeful, however, about CRR’s request that the IACHR visit the prison in El Salvador. “It will be international pressure that will push the government to initiate a dialogue. I hope that they visit the prison, review other cases from El Salvador, and sanction the Salvadoran government for not revising its legislation.”

Agrupación member Alberto Romero pointed out through email that on October 12, a week before the hearing, the Salvadoran Office of the Attorney General for Human Rights issued a report on reproductive rights in the country that called for a “dialogue” on the country’s abortion legislation. Most supporters interpret this as a push for changing the law to be less strict. “The fact that the hearing was held puts pressure on the government,” Romero wrote. “We will examine the report from the IACHR to see how it links to the call from Human Rights for a dialogue.”

Avila-Guillen also envisions potentially positive outcomes of the hearing, noting that more global attention paid to the issue may compel the Salvadoran government to at least start considering ways to modify legislation. “The government can’t hide from us,” she told Rewire. “The commission demanded that they respond. The important outcome is that the situation is more visible now, and the commission can help open the dialogue.”

At the hearing, Quintanilla had the last word. She looked the government representatives in the eye. “What I hope is that this does not continue to happen,” Quintanilla said. “My heart and my soul hurt knowing that other women are still in prison and that their lives are at risk.”