Roundups Media

Global Roundup: Iran Says No to Women Engineers; South Korea Considers Regulating Birth Control

Jessica Mack

Weekly global roundup: The RH Bill remains in the balance in the Philippines as Catholic Bishops put up new road blocks; Iran bars female students from 77 science- and technology-related fields of study at 36 universities; and South Korea re-considers emergency contraception access as their fertility rate dwindles. 

Philippines: Church Boldly Delays RH Bill Passage, Begins Inquisition of Supporters

As the RH Bill moves slowly but steadily forward in the Philippines, irate Catholic Bishops have a new tactic to affect its delay. They are pushing for a period of amendments to be allowed following the vote to end all debate on the bill August 6, which they have referred to as a blitzkrieg. “It’s not delaying. It’s about using existing parliamentary procedures because this has plenty of loopholes. We foresee that this period of amendment, hopefully, will take a while,” said Friar Melvin Castro, executive director of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. Perhaps the CBCP is hoping to simply tire out their opponents, but the RH Bill has overwhelming support throughout the country and the world, and that won’t soon change. The bill, which would grant historic access to contraception and sex education to the country’s vast and impoverished population, is backed by the majority of Filipinos, the United Nations, countless global child-welfare, human rights, and women’s health groups, and the President himself. The bill has been erroneously represented as promotional of abortion, a procedure entirely restricted in the country. In addition, however, the Church has launched what can only be considered an inquisition, investigating 159 faculty members of Ateneo de Manila University, a Catholic university, for signing a letter of support for the bill. If they are found guilty of espousing teachings contrary to those of the Church, they will lose their jobs. Via Philippines Daily Inquirer.  

Iran: Women Barred From Studying Science and Engineering

Iran’s Ministry of Science, Research and Technology has barred women in 36 universities from 77 fields of study, according to recent national news reports. While more than half of university graduates in 2009 were women, the unemployment rate for women graduating in science, engineering, and technology-related fields has remained extremely high. This is a justification for the ban, according to some (men) in higher education: “We do not need female students at all,” said Gholamrez Rashed, head of the University of Petroleum Technology. Difficult working conditions in Iran’s oil industry are a main reason for not admitting women, he said. Though gender segregation pervades Iranian society in many ways, literacy and access to education has been relatively equal since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Prominent Iranian feminists see this latest ban as an effort on the government’s part to counteract important gains for women in recent decades. Iranian feminist Shirin Ebadi, a human rights lawyer who endured imprisonment and persecution then earned a Nobel Peace Prize, wrote an open letter to the United Nations this month: “The Iranian government is using various initiatives, laws and policies to restrict women’s education and their active presence in society, to return them to the house so that they may stop fighting for their rightful demands and let the government go ahead with its erroneous policies.” Via Bloomberg.

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South Korea: Planned Reclassification of Birth Control Pills Draws Controversy

The Korean Food and Drug Administration is proposing a reclassification of contraceptive and emergency contraceptive (EC) pills as part of the agency’s efforts to reconsider the classification of all medications sold in the country. Currently, oral contraceptive pills are available over the counter, while EC requires a prescription. Under the new proposal, the regulations would be switched, with EC available over the counter and birth control pills prescription-only. There has been considerable response from doctors, pharmacists, and women’s health advocates, and as a result the government has postponed the reclassification. There also has been the usual outcry against unfettered EC availability, that it would promote use of EC in lieu of more consistent contraception and promote promiscuity. There has also been suspicion over financial motivations for the regulation switch, and whether it would be pharmacies or hospitals that would get paid. Regardless of access, South Korea’s fertility has been quite low in recent years, at just 1.21 per woman. Last year, Bloomberg reported that a persistently low birthrate was South Korea’s main obstacle to economic growth. Abortion is restricted in the country, though readily available, and recent efforts on the part of advocates have sparked historic national discussions on the issue of access. Via The Korea Times.

Roundups Media

Global Roundup: Madagascar’s Sex Work Industry On the Rise; Al Qaeda Threatens Maternal Health in Yemen

Jessica Mack

Weekly global roundup: The latest with the delayed RH Bill in the Philippines; HIV/AIDS stigma impedes maternal care in Kenya; Maternal deaths rise due to fighting in Yemen's south; and the sex work industry booms in Madagascar.

Latest in the Philippines: Reproductive Health Bill Held Hostage in Congress

Although Congress voted to end all debate on the RH Bill (House Bill 4244) in August, it has remained filibustered in Congress since then, with no clear signs of when and if it will move toward passing. The bill, which has been present in Congress in various versions for nearly 15 years, would secure access to comprehensive sexuality education and contraception for Filipinos. More than 90 million live in the Philippines, a collection of more than 7,000 islands in the Asia Pacific where highly restricted access to reproductive health information and services has contributed to vast poverty and other social and health issues. Although the bill has broad bi-partisan and global support, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has continued to fight tooth and nail to undermine its passage, and launching an all out war against those who support it, including an investigation of 159 faculty members of Ateneo de Manila University for their support of the bill. This is a clash of the titans—ideology versus science, human rights, and public health—to the greatest degree. And as the bill sits frozen in Congress, policymakers are pointing fingers at who is to blame, and one excuse after another seems to bubble up – including that although a quorum could be secured to pass the bill, some argue that such an important piece of legislation shouldn’t be passed by a minority. Meanwhile, Representative Kimi Cojuangco, who supports the bill, claims that each day its passage is delayed, the government wastes 50 million Pesos (approximately one million USD): That’s what it cost [when we delay the voting on the RH bill]. This is really a disservice to the nation, we could be saving so many lives.” Via Philippines Daily Inquirer.

Sub-Saharan Africa: HIV Stigma Deters Women From Pre-Natal Care

A recent study released in Kenya, which tracked the pre-natal activities of nearly 2,000 women, found that only 44 percent delivered in clinics, and that a fear of submitting to HIV tests was a major factor in this decision. These findings support others from across the continent, suggesting that while stigma around HIV and AIDS has been considerably reduced in recent years (numerous African leaders have gone public with their status and taken HIV tests publicly as well), stigma remains strong enough to prevent women from seeking care they know could save their lives as well as the lives of their babies. Prevention of mother to child transmission (PMTCT) programs are relatively well developed and accessible across the continent, but still the knowledge that one may be HIV positive has social ramifications that some are unwilling to risk. In the study, women reported fear of being kicked out by their husbands or being seen as promiscuous by their community if they received positive test results. Via The New York Times.

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Yemen: Ongoing Violence Threatens Women’s Lives

The Yemeni Army continues to clash with Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants in the south of the country, and women’s rights and health are suffering. Ongoing fighting in Abyan, a central-southern region, has displaced thousands and impeded women’s access to critical maternal and reproductive health services. The UN reports that, currently, a woman in Yemen as a 1 in 91 chance of dying during pregnancy and childbirth. Increased violence, instability, and the resulting restrictions on health resources put women and girls in an even more precarious situation. Women living in temporary camps often cannot access the care they need, and those who have returned to their homes in the south fear violence if they venture to clinics and hospitals. Earlier this year, militants in the south targeted girls and women who were not veiled, harassing them and even throwing acid. Yemenis will see the first independent election in 2014, and women’s rights advocates in the country are hoping to pass a law that would guarantee them 30 percent representation in parliament – a political gender quota that has been implemented in a number of countries already. Via IRIN.

Madagascar: Sex Work a Legal and Growing Profession

IRIN reports that over the last two decades, the number of registered sex workers in the main port city of Toamasina (on the country’s Indian coast), has grown by more than 50 percent, from 17,000 in 1993 to 29,000 in 2012. The city’s total population is about 200,000, meaning approximately one in seven residents are a sex worker. Sex work is legal in the country, and has been relatively successfully regulated through the use of ID cards that individuals apply for, or “unofficial red books,” which give sex workers access to judicial clinics and government protection of their financial and bodily well being. While national laws dictate that registered sex workers must be at least 18, a 2007 UNICEF survey of sex workers in Toamasina and the island Nosy Be found that between 30 and 50 percent were under age 18. This has raised significant concerns among the community, who fear the growing prominence of sex tourism, and police harassment of registered sex workers remains an issue. While there is a tendency to frame the growth of sex work as indicative of “no other economic options,” it certainly is not always the case. While women should be afforded a range of economic opportunities of their choosing, the legalization of the industry is a positive thing, enabling regulation and a platform for the continued protection of women’s reproductive health and rights. Via IRIN.

Roundups Media

Global Roundup: Saudi Arabia Plans Women-Only Cities; Philippines RH Bill Continues to Languish

Jessica Mack

Weekly global roundup: Will Saudi Arabia's plan to construct a women-only industrial city opens new doors for women? Philippines' RH Bill still hanging in the balance as the Catholic Church grows restless; Texans seek abortion pills in Mexico; Rare justice for 13-year-old Afghan torture survivor.

Saudi Arabia: Women-Only Industrial City to Open in 2013

In the tentative march forward for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, a women-only city will be constructed in Hofuf Province, in the east of the country. Several more single sex cities are planned in the coming years. Sex segregation in the country, which follows strict Wahabi Sharia laws, is the norm. Saudi Arabia has continued to come under strong criticism from other countries for its blatant marginalization of women. In July, Human Rights Watch called on the International Olympic Committee to demand that, for the first time ever, the country field female athletes at this year’s games. They did, though some women’s rights advocates claimed the move was tokenistic. The country has continued to move slowly toward liberalizing strict gender laws, especially when it comes under international pressure to do so, though without making major systemic changes. Campaigns, both national and international, to let women drive, vote, run in elections, and work freely outside the house have only been marginally successful. The latest news has been met largely with lukewarm appreciation or skepticism. “How can further segregation be expected to solve the problems caused by discrimination?” asks Homa Khaleeli in the Guardian. Khaleeli argues that women-only cities are one more link in the chain of women’s oppression, not a clear step toward undoing it. Via Guardian.

Philippines: Clock is Ticking as RH Bill Debate Wears On

In the never-ending story of the Philippines’ Reproductive Health Bill, debate wears on. While Congress voted last week to end debate on the RH Bill, which has languished for nearly two decades, heavy rains and flooding led to the postponement of a final vote. In the meantime, there has been even more testimony both for and against the bill. This week the Senate Majority Leader shed pernicious tears describing the loss of his infant years ago due to, according to him, his wife’s contraception use. He erroneously cited a number of other instances where friends had lost children, whose health had been compromised by the contraception their parents’ were using when they were conceived. Yikes. Meanwhile, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) are growing angrier. The CBCP spoke out during Mass this week, complaining that President Benigno called the vote to end debate on the bill August 6, instead of August 7 as promised. While the Philippines is majority Catholic, the overwhelming majority of the population supports the bill’s passage, which would grant unfettered access to sex ed and contraception where it has systematically been denied. Via The Philippines Star.

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Mexico and the US: Crossing Borders for Abortion Access

The Texas Tribune reports on the trend of women living on the Texas border crossing over into Mexico to access Misoprostol, a drug that serves to induce abortion. Abortion access has remained under assault, and especially in Texas, and this latest revelation is a sobering picture of the lengths to which women will go to pursue their reproductive freedom. Hefty costs, sparse clinic access, and intensified cultural stigma around abortion in the US have the potential to push women underground in their efforts to seek access. Misoprostol, or Cytotec as it is known generically, is a safe and effective abortifacient, but not available in the US without prescription and clinic-based use. In contrast, the drug is available widely and cheaply all over the world, largely due to the fact that it is marketed on-label as an ulcer medication. In 2009, a study showed that Dominican women living in New York were more comfortable taking Misoprostol on their own, obtained from the Dominican Republic, than visiting a local clinic for a safe, legal abortion. The trend highlights the immensity of abortion stigma, but also raises questions about efficacy when women self-abort with the drug obtained from another country or outside of a clinic setting. In the US, medication abortion is not recommended for use after nine weeks of pregnancy, and must be taken in specific doses and time frames to be effective. See Women on Web, by the fabulous abortion rights group Women on Waves, for specific information about safe and effective dosing of Miso. Via Texas Tribune.

Afghanistan: 13-Year Old Torture Survivor Sees Justice, Sort Of

Thirteen-year-old Sahar Gul made international headlines earlier this year after she was found tortured and shunned by her in-laws for refusing to engage in prostitution. While violence against women and women’s rights abuses in Afghanistan are, sadly, not rare, the global publicity of Gul’s case likely contributed President Hamid Karzai calling vociferously for a “probe” into the girl’s injuries. In July, a court of appeals upheld sentences of 10 years in prison each for her three in-laws, convicted of torture and imprisonment. While the decision is being hailed as a victory for women’s rights, Gul’s case is undoubtedly singular in the amount of global media attention it has garnered and advocates are dubious that her justice gained means much for women countrywide. “We have many cases perhaps graver than this where women are murdered. No one hears anything about them,” said one Afghan women’s rights advocate. In addition, the media’s treatment of Gul’s case has revealed insensitivity toward and objectification of the experiences of women, especially young women, in developing and non-Western countries. Gul’s image, bruised and battered, was splashed across websites and blogs, and Times reporter Graham Bowley was criticized after he declared he should have ‘pushed past no,’ in trying to interview Gul in her hospital bed. Via New York Times.