Last week, President Obama signed the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which funds support groups for and prosecution of violent crimes against women. VAWA has made an enormous impact over the years, and sexual violence against women and girls has plummeted by more than 60 percent in the United States during the decade following its initial 1994 passage. But VAWA, or any law that aims to curtail violence against women, could do far more to protect women if its scope was expanded to encompass the reproductive rights violations that result in pain and suffering.
This week, the Center for Reproductive Rights is sponsoring a panel, to coincide with the annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women, that makes the case for a broader definition of violence against women. Denial of reproductive health services can cause severe physical and mental physical suffering, making violations of reproductive rights another form of violence against women, and sometimes even a form of torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Experts will present mounting evidence that this perspective is gaining traction, especially among human rights experts and bodies across the world.
Take, for example, the denial of access to contraception. The Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women has described it as a form of violence because it subjects “women to excessive pregnancies and childbearing against their will, resulting in increased and preventable risks of maternal mortality and morbidity.”
The Center has helped secure landmark victories before a number of human rights bodies, some of which have identified reproductive rights violations to be torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. And our work continues in several countries where reproductive health policies, or the lack of them, have allowed for astonishing acts against women that have inflicted tremendous suffering:
- Polish doctors denied a woman genetic prenatal examinations which would have enabled her to make a decision about whether or not to seek an abortion. Although Poland’s abortion law is restrictive, it does allow for abortion due to fetal impairment. However, after the woman’s doctor noticed irregularities in a sonogram, she was repeatedly denied a genetic prenatal test by hospitals, doctors, and clinics—all in an effort to stall her until it was too late for a lawful abortion. The European Court of Human Rights, in the case we brought with the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning, R.R. v. Poland, ruled that the woman had suffered inhuman and degrading treatment.
- Many schools in Tanzania enforce a strict policy of mandatory pregnancy testing. A positive test results in a young girl’s expulsion from school, threatening her physical safety and diminishing her prospect for a brighter future. We’re documenting the dire consequences this policy has on the 8,000 girls who are forced out of school every year.
- A teenager in Peru found out she was pregnant after being raped for years. Distraught, the girl threw herself off of a neighbor’s roof and suffered a crippling spinal injury. Doctors could have repaired some of the extensive damage to her spine through a surgical intervention but they refused because it would have terminated the pregnancy. The girl ultimately miscarried, but by then it was too late for the spinal surgery to have the initially expected results. She is a quadriplegic today. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women condemned Peru for denying access to the legal therapeutic abortion she required, and demanded the country ease its restrictions on abortion, allowing women to obtain the service in cases of rape and sexual assault.
The Center works on many more issues—coerced sterilization, detention of women after childbirth on the pretext of unpaid medical bills, absolute abortion bans—that cause pain and suffering in myriad ways. Every case brought, every wrong documented, strengthens the connection between reproductive rights violations and violence. And demonstrates that our laws need to reach further to truly protect women.