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Women Must Have a Choice 12 Apr 1994

THE EARTH TIMES (Daily for ICPD prepcom)

APRIL 12, 1994

EDITORIAL: Women must have a Choice

By Ashali Varma

UNITED NATIONS, New York –At the start of the second week of PrepCom3, even while the language of the draft document is being debated by delegates, one fact has clearly emerged: non-governmental organizations and women can no longer be ignored, marginalized or excluded from decisions that governments make at the international level.

The momentum building up within the Women’s Caucus, within the more liberal governments, and within the rank and file of NGOs, will definitely influence the outcome of the critical debate in PrepCom3.  And even if the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development may not achieve much in the areas of getting additional resources and the implementation of the Program of Action, the Cairo Conference will have already “succeeded,” in a manner of speaking, because of the unprecedented participation of NGOs and women.

Consider this: Taboo subjects like abortion, female circumcision, violence against women, religious fundamentalism and the problems faced by a “girl child” are now being discussed openly.  Especially significant is the fact that while women are at the forefront of these issues, men are very much involved in the ongoing debate; and “male responsibility” is one of the key themes.  Governments can no longer afford to ignore these issues, not in a world where hi-tech communications make it possible for NGOs to say to diplomats, “The whole world is watching you. “To shrug off responsibility or accountability will soon prove impossible, particularly when the rich countries link trade regimes to human rights.

In the current debate, “human rights” has taken on a whole new meaning .  It is no longer just freedom, democracy and free speech that are at issue; “human rights” includes the right of each and every human being on this planet to have access to development opportunities, jobs, food, shelter education and health care.  It is the right of women to equality, to have a say in public life and to be empowered enough to have choices in reproduction.

An American friend explained to this writer the debate on abortion and the political ramifications involved, when President Bush was running for re-election in 1992.  She asked how we viewed the subject in India. I told her that in a country where millions live below the poverty line, we don’t have the luxury to debate the issue of abortion.  Surely, a poor illiterate woman with six children living in the most subhuman conditions should have the right to decide whether she wants to bring another child into this world.  Surely her rights as a mother and a human being are more important than those of an unborn child?

Later, talking to another friend, I realized that abortion is not only the concern of the poor and the underprivileged, it is also a major issue with the young people of America. My friend told me that the most horrendous experience of her life was when she had to take a friend who could not afford a doctor to an abortion clinic.  In the many hours that she had to wait at the clinic, she saw women with AIDS, drug addicts and one who was even five months pregnant desperate for an abortion.  My initial reaction was disbelief.  Surely, the most advanced and richest country in the world could have better care available.  If America could not afford to educate, inform and provide better health care facilities for its young what hope was there for a poor country of 950 million people?

The Vatican, as to be expected has simply missed this point.  The Pope advocates against any form of contraception except the “natural” way and recommends abstinence.  As a result, many Catholic countries in the developing world have a high teenage pregnancy rate and women are denied rational choices.  Also, by playing up the morality issue the Holy See overlooks the ramifications of the AIDS pandemic.  To expect billions of people to practice abstinence is to ignore the reality.  I asked a Catholic friend of mine how he dealt with all this.  He told me he had asked his priest for advice and was told to listen to his own conscience.

There are millions of practicing Catholics like him who make their own choices.  The danger is that developing countries that follow the Catholic doctrine are putting a generation of young people at risk.  The poor don’t have access to education and information on contraception.  By ignoring these issues the Catholic Church is creating a dangerous precedent which is already being followed by other religious fundamentalist groups.  As has already been established at PrepCom3 there is more at stake in the Cairo Conference that the issue of population stabilization.  If some of what the NGOs and the women representatives are demanding is accepted, then the Program of Action will truly be a “People’s Agenda,” and can be effective in more ways than the international community believes.