A momentous UN report exposes reproductive rights horrors in the Philippines.
Tina Montales, her husband, and their eight children barely have enough to eat.
A few rolls and coffee for breakfast. A couple of pounds of rice for lunch and dinner for all of them, with only soy sauce or salt if the day’s earnings do not allow the 10 pesos for vegetables or dried fish. Some days, there’s less.
Tina never wanted to have eight children. In fact, her ideal number was two, and—had she been able to obtain the birth control she sought—she and her husband might have been able to support their family. Instead, her children have no school shoes and often nothing for lunch. Her sixth child, who was born at a low birth weight, has ongoing health issues. Her oldest died of rheumatic heart disease.
The family lives in Manila City, where, although contraception is technically legal, a local directive called Executive Order 003 has for nearly the past 15 years made it almost impossible for the region’s most disadvantaged citizens to obtain effective family planning supplies and services.
Tina used to receive free birth control pills, and had planned to have a tubal ligation. But the passage of executive orders that restrict funding for and access to modern contraception put these services firmly out of reach for Tina and thousands of other Filipino women who could not afford to pay for birth control privately.
Tina lives in fear of becoming pregnant again.
“By failing to repeal this law, the Filipino government has essentially allowed Manila City to deny women access to the most common and modern methods of birth control,” says Melissa Upreti, regional director for Asia at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which has been working to expose the harmful impact of this policy for several years. “This has resulted in serious human rights violations including of the rights to health, equality, and nondiscrimination for an entire generation of women in Manila City.”
A 2007 report by the Center documenting human rights violations associated with Executive Order 003 became the basis for a special inquiry convened by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)—an international human rights treaty body—in 2012 to investigate these concerns. The inquiry is the first of its kind to specifically examine the human rights implications of denial of contraceptive access for women and to hold a government accountable for failing to uphold this right.
At last, the results of that inquiry have been published, and the committee’s findings are resounding: the Philippines has been held responsible for violating women’s human rights— particularly their right to freedom from discrimination—by denying thousands of women the full range of reproductive health services, which can cause irreparable harm, and failing to remove barriers to access.
The Committee holds the government accountable for failing to prioritize women’s human rights over religious ideology and cultural stereotypes, which has led to widespread discrimination against women and hindered access to sexual and reproductive health information and services. It expressed concern about funding restrictions on modern contraceptives in Manila City and called specifically for the legalization of abortion in cases of rape, incest, when the health or life of the woman is at risk, and in cases of severe fetal impairments.
“The Committee’s findings are unambiguous in connecting how the Filipino government’s current policies have created an oppressive and discriminatory environment for women,” says Upreti. “We are hopeful that President Aquino and other leaders can use the CEDAW’s detailed recommendations to implement positive changes to ensure and protect women’s reproductive rights in the country.”
Last year, the Philippine Supreme Court upheld the country’s groundbreaking Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 (known as the Reproductive Health Law), which guarantees access to contraceptives for all citizens, mandates reproductive health education in government schools, and recognizes a woman’s right to post-abortion care as part of the right to reproductive health care. However, political battles over modern contraception have prevented the law from being fully implemented.
The CEDAW’s recommendations include urging the Philippines to:
- address the unmet need for contraception and reproductive health services,
- establish health care protocols to prevent abuse and discrimination against women seeking reproductive health services,
- ensure that local governments set effective legal remedies for women seeking redress for violations of their right to access sexual and reproductive health services, and
- prioritize the protection of women’s health rights “to eliminate all ideological barriers limiting women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services, commodities and information.”
The Center will continue our work advocating on the ground and in international human rights bodies and courts to ensure that these recommendations are vigorously implemented. For women in the Philippines, it is one more step toward reclaiming the dignity and self-determination that they deserve.