In celebration of the International Women's Health Month, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty and WomanHealth organised a public forum which revisited maternal health in the Philippines. Held at on 28 May 2008 at the legislative hall of Quezon City, which recently passed an ordinance on reproductive health, the forum highlighted the deterioration of health services for Filipino women.

Maternal Health in the Philippines

Representatives from the Department of Health (DOH) and the Local Government of Quezon City attributed the most common causes of maternal deaths to the limited hospitals and few trained personnel. As of 2006, 162 Filipino mothers die for every 100,000 deliveries or roughly six mothers a day. Newborn mortality rate is also high, with 17 deaths for every 1,000 infants that are born.

In 2007, Quezon City registered one of the highest maternal mortality, with 184 deaths. Coming mainly from District 2, with a population of over 1. 5 million residents, among the poorest are those residing in the Payatas dumpsite. Most mothers who died were at their prime, aged 25 to 35 years. Most of them suffered from excessive bleeding, eclampsia, and complications due to unsafe abortion.

The DOH is now encouraging pregnant women to proceed to facilities. In the past, DOH attempted to train and regulate traditional birth attendants, commonly known as “manghihilot” or those who massage the belies of mothers, claiming that such practice can properly position the fetus and ease labour pains. “We spent millions on the trainings only to find out that most of the manghihilots are not practising what they had learned. Many of them also continued to work, in the absence of a midwife, contrary to what DOH prescribed them to do,” Dr. Zenaida Recidoro, DOH Safe Motherhood Programme lamented.

Back to Basics: Sexual Health and Sexual Rights

“Before we can talk about reproductive health and family planning, we need to take into account sexual health and sexual rights first,” Recidero commented. She added that in several instances, women are merely forced to get pregnant. In the Philippines, abortion is illegal and its criminalisation also leaves many women with unwanted pregnancies.

The DOH said that sexual health and sexual rights are “part of the package” that they offer to women. They admitted however the limited sex education for the youth, owing to the influence of the Catholic church. “Sex education is a taboo but it should actually begin the moment the child inquires about her body,” Recidoro affirmed. She also admitted that contraceptives must be distributed not only to mothers who would like to control the number of their children but to young people who are sexually active.

On several occasions, the DOH proposed the inclusion of sex education in the curriculum at least in public high schools. It already created modules on the subject and attempted to collaborate with the Department of Education. However, the plan was rebuffed by Malacanang, due to pressures from the Catholic church.

The Catholic church is also the force behind the eight-year ban on the distribution of contraceptives in the capital city of Manila during the term of Mayor Lito Atienza. In January 2008, a class suit was filed against Atienza, with the complainants invoking Philippine constitution and international treaties, particularly the United Nation's Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

A Continuing Global War against Women's Bodies

Fundamentalism impacting on women's bodies was further explored in a related forum on the same day, organised by local reproductive rights advocates such as Likhaan, the University of the Philippines Center for Women's Studies (UPCWS), UP Department on Women and Development, and the Women's Global Network for Reproductive Rights and attended mostly by grassroots women's organisations.

Dr. Sylvia Estrada-Claudio of UP CWS surfaced the links between women's bodies and labour on the one hand, and capitalism and globalisation, on the other. Feminist, human rights activist and former Congress representative Loretta Ann Rosales located one of the sites of struggle for Filipino women in the labour migration policy. At the moment, more than 70 percent of overseas Filipino workers consist of women working in the service sector. Most of them are also young, aged between 18 to 30 years, making them even more vulnerable to different forms of gender-based violence.

Rosales also criticised the government's reluctance to recognise women's reproductive rights, as manifested in the “difficulty to pass bills on women.” During her term as a solon, Rosales sponsored the reproductive health bill which was not supported by most people in Congress. “It is a question of choice. Women have the right to have babies and decide when to have them,” she asserted.

Feminist advocates Marlene Fried and Leila Hessini further discussed the international forms of fundamentalism, tracing them to the internal and foreign policies of the United States. Fried pointed out the increasing privatisation of services in the US, including penal and correctional institutions. She cited multiplying number of women in these prisons and their subjection to sexual violence and separation from their children. “Since prisons are run by the private sector, there is no accountability with regard to these violations,” she explained. Women who were arrested when they were pregnant usually undergo ceasarian procedure, even when this is unnecessary.

The wave of privatisation, including outsourcing is among the harsh effects of globalisation, hurting even its authors. “Everything in the US is being outsourced, including reproductive health services. Globalisation has been exacerbating the poverty that has long existed in the US,” Fried asserted.

Reproductive Justice

Fried then introduced a new framework in appreciating reproductive rights, “reproductive justice” which unlike the previous “choice” frameworks, emphasises the state's responsibility in providing access to reproductive health services and takes into account the needs of women minorities such as African-Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants.

Fried also discussed the implications of the coming US elections on reproductive rights in the US and beyond. While “there is a feeling of optimism that the Bush administration will come to an end,” a Democratic will not guarantee access to reproductive health services including abortion as both Obama and Clinton are focused on pregnancy prevention. There are greater chances though that the Global Gag Rule will be junked.

The Global Gag Rule is a policy which restricts government assistance to foreign NGOs working on reproductive rights. The policy has gravely affected programmes on HIV-AIDS prevention and safe abortions, and increased HIV-AIDS infection, maternal mortality and infant mortality. “This policy has not reduced abortion. Instead Bush uses women's bodies to appease conservatives. Not reducing abortions means increasing unsafe abortions,” as Hessini put it.

Hessini invoked that, “To end the war against women's bodies and respond to women's needs, there must be an increase on social movements and transnational advocacy networks.”

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