Holding Back Women Holds Back Progress

Developing country progress cannot be realized unless governments also recognize bodily autonomy and sexual rights, especially for those who are marginalized and seldom heard from or are even visible, according to a Bangkok conference on rights issues, with women and girls among key populations whose rights are regularly violated to the point where it holds back development.

"Sexual and reproductive health and rights are not only women's issues but also issues of other constituencies we work with, and different areas we work on, are also linked to those rights, said Susmita Choudhary of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, moderating an intergovernmental meeting in Thailand on sustainable development. “It is indeed a cross-cutting issue."

"These rights are a set of interconnected human rights related to sexuality and reproduction of a person recognizing international laws, international human rights and consensus documents, and based upon the principles of bodily autonomy and integrity,” said Malyn Ando of the Asian Pacific Resource Centre for Women, saying these issues are important “for development justice and for the post-2015 sustainable development agenda; right of self-determination; equality among men, women, transgender and intersex people; and respect cultural diversity."

If women can’t control their own bodies, sexualities, or fertility, “then we cannot also fully access other rights such as economic, social, and cultural rights,” Ando said. “It is about our health, getting information about sexuality and reproduction, and about choosing who we are. Whether we want to be sexually active or not – celibacy is also a valid option – whether two consenting people want to get married or not, have children or not, it is important to have that right to choose, and means to realize these rights, free from coercion or violence."

In a study done by ARROW in 21 countries in the Asia-Pacific, little progress was found to have been made on sexual reproduction and reproductive health rights.

For example, Ando said, “women are having fewer children but still they are having more children than they want. The burden of contraception still falls heavily on women – male sterilization for example has a very poor or negligible uptake. Adolescent pregnancies still remain a challenge. Liberalization of safe abortion policies has been too slow. More women die from reproductive cancers than childbirth or during pregnancy, yet our governments are not prepared to address this."

Poverty, disasters, climate change and conflicts are also linked to the lack of these rights, according to the seminar.

"Ensuring that such services are universally accessible to the whole population and in particular to those living in districts with poor health indicators such as the post conflict areas, estate sectors and economically underperforming districts is pivotal for equal development within the country,” said Sepali Kottegoda from the Women and Media Collective in Sri Lanka. “Adolescent birthrates are very high in Sri Lanka. Between 2007-2012 it shot up from 3.7 percent to 12 percent. There are young people who are unaware of reproductive health services or unable to access them.

“This comes up because most of these issues are geared for married or cohabiting couples. The category of single, widowed, separated, divorced, and adolescent women is actually not even a priority. They are not barred from accessing but prejudices or preconceived notions of their sexuality become a major barrier for them to accessing services they need."

Abortion is criminalized in Sri Lanka except when the mother’s health is in question. However the illegal abortion rate is estimated at 3,000 per year or more. Categories of those seeking abortions include married people who were not aware of or not able to access services. Abortion is also a result of incest and rape, a serious issue in Sri Lanka, especially as the country emerged from 30 years of internal conflict in 2009. Violence against women has been a concern especially in conflict areas.

Sri Lanka, Sepali says, criminalizes same-sex relationships. Male same-sex relationships had been criminalized, although in 1995 after penal code reforms where gender equality was seriously integrated, both male and female same-sex relationships were made criminal behavior.

Migrant populations are also at risk, with HIV rates alarmingly high. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka continue to have large numbers of new infections among migrants, said Mara Quesada from the NGO Coordination of Action Research on AIDS and Mobility in Asia. Migrant workers, she said, are regarded “only as workers and even as commodities – and not seen as sexual human beings. It is assumed as if health and sexual reproduction rights are not a priority for them."

Women workers are often forced to take contraceptives or undergo sterilization or abortion when they get pregnant. In some cases migrant workers have been forced to take long-acting contraception before taking leave so that they do not get pregnant while on leave and can work when they return. Mandatory HIV and pregnancy testing (prior to departure from home country and upon arrival in destination country), and related detention and deportation are other major challenges

Some 76 countries across the world still criminalize and prosecute Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, intersex or questioning people for their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. At least 26 countries in Asia Pacific still criminalize such behavior. They face the death penalty in Iran and Brunei, among other countries

"SRHR is not just about illiteracy – rather it is about the right of women and adolescent girls to have correct information about reproductive and sexual health is violated,” one speaker said “It is also about infrastructure and accessibility of services for those-in need. The post-2015 development agenda should ensure that."

Bobby Ramakant is the editor of Citizen News Service