Gender Development Projects should Target the Whole Community (1-3)
‘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.’
The role of women’s movements
Latin America’s transition from dictatorships to democracy in the 1970s and 1980s was marked by the rise of a dynamic women’s rights movement.
Women’s groups like the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, the caceroleos in Chile, trade unions in Uruguay, and the Casas de la Mujer (Women’s Houses) in Nicaragua, were key to resisting military oppression. Yet, by joining with men in the collective struggle to overcome authoritarian regimes, women effectively subordinated their specific interests to the greater common goal of national liberation. Even when socialist movements for reform, such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, did include commitments to address the ‘gender interests’ of women, these promises often went unfulfilled (ibid.).
By the 1990s, many in Latin America’s women’s movements were demanding equal rights, and insisted that addressing women’s interests was fundamental to establishing a truly representative democracy. They called for the liberalization of laws regulating the human rights of individuals, which include not only the right to control one’s body, but also the right to divorce, the right to sexual orientation, and the decriminalization of abortion.
Particular attention to women’s reproductive rights has, in part, been spurred by the pioneering United Nations agreements of Cairo and Beijing, which recognized for the first time that unsafe abortion was a major public-health concern, and that where legal, it should be safe and available to the full extent of the law: (Programme of Action, International Conference on Population and Development, Programme of Action, Fourth World Conference on Women: Paragraph.
Across Latin America, women’s organizing at the regional and national levels for abortion reform gained momentum in the wake of the conferences.
The September 28th Campaign for the Decriminalization of Abortion is a regional advocacy network, formed a few years before the UN conferences, in 1990. The campaign aimed to promote the liberalization of abortion laws, to counter conservative opposition to abortion, and to improve post-abortion services. By producing and distributing educational materials and newsletters, it facilitated a regional exchange of ideas and information, effectively assuring that abortion was continually in the minds of the public. Other organizations, for example the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights (CLADEM), focused more generally on women’s rights, and included advocacy on abortion as a significant part of their work.
The abortion rights movement in Latin America has been impeded by strong opposition from the Catholic Church, which has close, historic ties to Latin American governments, and is the most influential religious and social tradition in the region.2 The Catholic Church is immutable on certain issues, and remains unequivocally opposed to abortion, contraception, and divorce. Though there are notable exceptions where progressive movements within the Catholic
Church, such as the liberation theology movement, are in fact conduits for change, these movements have not emphasized sexual and reproductive rights.
In recent years, the Catholic Church has found common ground on abortion with an unlikely ally: evangelical Protestant Christians. A steady increase in Catholic conversions to Protestantism is threatening the Church’s religious hegemony in the region. Evangelical Protestants are also politically threatening, forming political parties and electing officials to prominent government positions throughout the region (Guatemala, for example, has had three evangelical presidents). Yet competition for new adherents has not prevented the rival churches from pulling together to advance the shared goal of criminalizing abortion.
In the next sections, I examine recent changes to abortion policy in three different contexts: Nicaragua, Colombia, and Mexico City.
In Nicaragua, abortion became a criminal offence in all circumstances in 2006.
The partnership between the Catholic Church and evangelical Protestants was conspicuously on display in 2006 in Nicaragua, when Catholic Church leaders invited evangelical Protestants to join a massive rally in support of legislation outlawing abortion for any reason.3 Although the Nicaraguan women’s movements mobilized strongly, and were supported by many in the international reproductive rights and human rights community, the power of the religious bloc was too formidable. On 26 October 2006, Nicaragua’s parliament voted 52:0 to criminalize therapeutic abortion, effectively denying Nicaraguan women access to abortion under any conditions.
Even before this, Nicaragua had one of the most restrictive laws in the region, allowing the procedure only for ‘therapeutic’ abortion.4 Under Nicaragua’s
1893 penal code, therapeutic abortion had no criminal penalty.5 Nonetheless, access to legal abortion prior to the outlawing of therapeutic abortion was practically non-existent; in 2005, and the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health reported providing only six therapeutic abortions. It is important to note that, though few therapeutic abortions were actually provided when the procedure was legal, permitting abortion for that exception facilitated provision of corollary emergency obstetric care and treatments in the public-health system, many of them lifesaving.6 Under the new therapeutic abortion ban, evidence is emerging that health-care providers are unwilling to perform emergency obstetric procedures – such as treatment for an ectopic pregnancy or postmenopausal hemorrhaging – fearing that these may be construed as an abortion, and subjected to criminal penalties.
What precipitated the sudden urgency to change a century-old penal code? During the 2006 presidential elections – a tight race between the three presidential front-runners – the Catholic Church, supported by evangelical pastors, introduced legislation to repeal the country’s law permitting therapeutic abortion.
The legislation was supported by parliamentarians from the two dominant parties, the right-wing Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), both of which were vying for seats in the election and stood to gain needed support by currying favour with the Catholic Church. Several parliamentarians of both parties responded immediately by fast-tracking the Church’s proposed legislation through parliament, a device primarily reserved for national emergencies. Their disregard for legislative protocol demonstrated the severe politicization of the abortion debate. Whereas the feminist movement in Nicaragua framed abortion reform as an issue of health, democracy, and individual rights – specifically, control over one’s body and sexuality – the Church effectively shifted the discourse to an explicitly religious agenda in the context of electoral politics.
Immediate opposition to the proposed ban came from the women’s movement, which mobilized support from regional allies, as well as international organizations, including the United Nations and the European Union. Despite appeals from these organizations, from Nicaragua’s Minister of Health, and from the medical community, to postpone the vote until after the elections when debate would be unencumbered by electoral considerations – the legislation was presented and unanimously passed by the National Assembly, ten days prior to the elections. Incumbent President Enrique Bolaños immediately signed the legislation into law.
While Bolaños’ action was disappointing to opponents of the ban, it was not surprising. What was shocking was the complete change of heart of former Sandinista president, Daniel Ortega, who had openly supported abortion during his tenure as president of Nicaragua in the 1980s. Ortega was one of three front-runners in the 2006 race; he made a show of his Catholic credentials, openly reconciled with the Catholic Church, and asserted that he was unequivocally against abortion. This move enabled him to campaign without incurring any criticism from the Catholic Church.
A few days after the vote on abortion, on 6 November 2006, Ortega won by a comfortable 10 per cent majority.
By Ursula King Bristol University, 11/05/2012