Gender Development Projects should Target the Whole Community (3-3)
‘The timely, thought-provoking essays of this book provide valuable evidence of the impact of different gender and faith perspectives on practical development issues while also highlighting the complexities and ambiguities of religious influences. Development workers, researchers and social activists will gain from these studies a greater awareness and more critical understanding of how different religious beliefs and practices, whether of Christianity, Buddhism or Islam in the Middle East, Asia, Africa or Latin America, can either be a potential barrier or alternatively a strong incentive for social change.’
Religious education and women’s rights
Lack of religious education among the public allows extremists to use Islamic texts against women. Hadiths1 are among the strongest weapons used to justify the marginalization of Muslim women from religious and social power. Although a significant portion of the accounts of the Prophet’s comments and deeds were recounted on the authority of women, the Hadiths were written by men. Many Hadiths that undermine women’s freedom actually contradict the actions and philosophy of the Prophet Mohammed; the misogyny employed in the collection of such Hadiths has been discussed elsewhere. In addition, the fact that Arabic is not widely spoken in Somalia helps religious extremists to maintain their hold over communities: for example, they justify ideas about the weakness of women by arguing that the Arabic word al nisaa is synonymous with the Arabic word nisf.
Through such arguments, women and men are made to believe that women are less intelligent in the eyes of Allah, and that the limitation of their rights is therefore justified. Until Somali women receive a better education, and better religious education in particular, this situation looks set to continue.
Women’s organizations are the only part of civil society to attempt seriously to redress the extremists’ strategy of marginalizing women on the grounds of religious ‘evidence’.
While the challenge of research and work by women’s organizations is significant enough to cause concern to religious extremists and their supporters, their work is hindered by the lack of a coherent shared policy, and lack of access to the growing literature by Islamic scholars of both sexes, which challenges the denial of women’s rights using religious texts. Women’s organizations must bring about coherence in policy and achieve improved cooperation in designing and implementing strategies to challenge the erosion of women’s rights.
Lessons for advocacy
Latin America’s transition to democracy in the 1970s and 1980s was accompanied by the increased political participation of women, who demanded not only equal rights, but also insisted that addressing women’s specific interests was key to establishing a truly representative democracy. Many in the Latin American women’s movement saw the right to safe, legal abortion as fundamental. To date, their demand for this has gone largely unfulfilled, except in Cuba. There is no panacea to rescinding punitive abortion laws. However, the region is currently witnessing shifts in government policies on abortion, both progressive and retrogressive, which suggest that there is potential for substantive reform.
This chapter will use the recent experiences of Colombia, Mexico City, and Nicaragua to highlight shared challenges, establish linkages with other countries in the region, and demonstrate that the many different strategies which have been adopted present an opportunity to expand access to safe, legal abortion throughout Latin America.
Introduction: abortion in Latin America
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 3.7 million unsafe abortions take place each year in Latin America and the Caribbean. Of these, approximately 2,000 result in death, accounting for 11 per cent of all maternal deaths. With the exception of Cuba and Guyana, Latin America’s abortion laws are extremely restrictive. In most nations, abortion is available for limited exceptions such as to save a woman’s life, preserve her health, or for incest and rape. Others, like Nicaragua, Chile, and El Salvador prohibit abortion under any circumstances.
The adverse impact of the restrictions on abortion on the health of Latin American women is well-documented. A 2007 study published by the Guttmacher Institute and WHO, ‘Induced Abortion: estimated rates and trends worldwide’, found that strict prohibitions do not prevent abortions, but rather force women to terminate their pregnancies under unsafe conditions, often resulting in severe physical injuries or death.
The penalization of abortion disproportionately affects poor and young women. Unlike middle- and upper-class women who can discreetly get a safe abortion at a private clinic, poor women must rely on suspect providers or self-administered abortions using traditional medicines and unsafe methods, which result in grave health consequences.
This chapter examines several recent changes in abortion policy in three different locations in Latin America, and examines the reasons behind the changes. In particular, it tries to draw out lessons for activists and advocates working on this and other similarly politically sensitive issues. Latin America has a strong tradition of abortion activism, and over the past three decades advocates have organized various initiatives aiming to ensure that where it is already legal, abortion is actually provided; and to legalize abortion and rescind punitive laws criminalizing the procedure, where these actions are required.
The successes of national and regional movements for abortion reform in
Latin America can be measured primarily in terms of progressive changes in national legislation; increased capacity on the part of the movements and individual member organizations to advocate on the issues; and increased public consciousness of the issue. These successes are unique to Latin America.
They have enabled the movement to advance, despite unfavorable political, legal, and social environments.
On 24 April 2007, Mexico City’s legislative assembly passed one of the most comprehensive abortion reform bills in Latin America. The bill decriminalized abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and required the Ministry of Health to fund all requests for the procedure. In Latin America, activists considered the event a watershed moment for Mexico, and for the region as a whole – the culmination of over 30 years of advocacy. Activism has also resulted in another recent legal change in Colombia, and other regional shifts in abortion policy – which are part of a broader transformation of the Latin American political landscape. In contrast, a recent setback in Nicaragua, where abortion for any reason has now been made a criminal offence, presents a cautionary tale.
This chapter draws on my experience working in the field of sexual and reproductive rights, with a specific focus on Latin America. I have extensive experience conducting research on secular and religious movements opposed to sexual and reproductive rights, and this work informs much of my analysis of the Catholic Church and evangelical Protestant movements referenced in this chapter. Currently, I serve as Assistant Program Officer for Latin America at the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC). IWHC’s Latin America Program provides sustained financial and professional support to our partners working in the region. Part of my work includes travel in the region where
I meet with colleagues to support their efforts and strategize on approaches to advancing abortion rights in Latin America. Several IWHC partners are mentioned in this chapter.
By Ursula King Bristol University, 09/05/2012