By Dianne Silva Second in our series on Women’s Rights, leading up to the International Day of Women (March) is a discussion with Shamila Daluwatte an Attorney-at-Law and Gender Specialist.
Q: How aware are Women in Sri Lanka, of their reproductive Rights?
Women are somewhat aware of their reproductive rights, but knowledge is not enough among women considering the fact that women are the majority in Sri Lanka.
Rights are not known by many women despite the fact that Ministry of Health is taking very positive efforts to educate women and adolescents about reproductive health. Health is a Right, many women are not aware of. reproductive rights are legal rights and freedoms relating to reproduction and reproductive health.
Recently I conducted a programme in Jaffna for 23 young women. As per my survey, only 2 women had knowledge of POSTINOR-2, which is an emergency contraceptive that can be used after unprotected sex or where a contraceptive method has failed. This type of contraception is often called “the morning-after pill”
Out of 23 women , a few knew about methods of family planning, also very little 4/23 knew about Sexually Transmitted Illnesses/Sexually Transmitted Diseases and HIV.
The World Health Organization defines reproductive rights as follows:
“Reproductive rights rest on the recognition of the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. They also include the right of all to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence.”
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women states the following:
“While the Committee acknowledges the achievements of the State party in the area of maternal healthcare, it is concerned about the limited knowledge of reproductive health and the low rate contraceptive use, the high level of teenage pregnancies especially in less developed and conflict-affected areas, as well as the low accessibility to family planning and the increase in prevalence of HIV/AIDS infection among women. The Committee is also concerned that abortion is a punishable offence under the law, unless the purpose is to save the life of the mother and regrets that about 10 per cent of maternal mortality is reported as the direct result of clandestine abortion.” (CEDAW report)
37. Within the framework of the Committee’s general recommendation No. 24, the Committee urges the State party to:
(a) Ensure that family planning and reproductive health education are widely promoted, in particular for internally displaced women and girls as well as women working in less developed and conflict-affected areas, with special attention to the prevention of early pregnancies of girls and the control of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS; and
(b) Reduce maternal mortality rates by identifying and addressing causes of maternal death;
(c) Take measures to ensure that women do not seek unsafe medical procedures, such as illegal abortion, because of lack of appropriate services in regard to fertility control
Q: When discussing reproductive rights, it is automatically assumed that it is a pro-abortion/ pro-choice issue. But what are the other issues involved?
Unsafe abortions are a contributing factor to maternal mortality (Figures 8 & 9). Maternal deaths due to abortions ranked fourth leading cause accounting 12.33 and 10.64 per cent of all maternal deaths in 2006 and 2007, respectively (Family Health Bureau, 2010). Relatively high maternal deaths reported due to unsafe abortions in recent years indicate a high prevalence of unmet need for family planning. (UNFPA Population Assessment Report)
In Sri Lanka, abortion is illegal, except to save a woman’s life, and the majority of women lack access to safe abortion care and control of their reproduction (Abeyesekera 1997; Hirve 2004). This has created a market for unqualified personnel thereby leading to unsafe abortions and economic burdens for households (Duggal 2004; Hettiarachchi and Schensul 2001). Rajapaksha (1998) estimated that the abortion ratio would be 741 per 1000 live births.
Reproductive rights may include some or all of the following: the right to legal or safe abortion, the right to family planning, the right to access quality reproductive healthcare, and the right to education and access in order to make free and informed reproductive choices. Reproductive rights may also include the right to receive education about contraception and sexually transmitted infections, and freedom from coerced sterilization, abortion, and contraception, and protection from gender-based practices.
In certain instances we see that young girls during their period of puberty are deprived of food and regular activities.
Q.What do you think can be done to empower women to have more of a say with regards to reproductive issues?
Education in order to generate knowledge about their rights. Especially in schools, when I was young sex education was not a priority for the science teacher, she would skip that section even if it was in the syllabus.
Couple education before marriage is also important; the family health education bureau has started this and it needs to be expanded.
Further women need to be empowered to bargain for sexual rights and decisions in sexual rights such as spacing and number of children.
Q. There have been a number of campaigns to stop gender based violence, how effective have these been, especially in the rural areas of the country?
Gender-based violence does not know any boundaries – it cuts across all class, caste, age, gender, ethnicity, religion and other grounds. It can happen to any person at any given moment of time from birth to death, home to school, village to town, urban to rural without demarcating differences between young and old, married and single or employed and unemployed. Gender–based violence consists of physical, sexual or physiological harm.
Women both urban and rural have to be aware - gender-based violence can be perpetrated at any level be it at home, community or the state.
How many of us grew up hearing “Silence is golden.” Well, do we want to maintain a policy of silence when we see children and women being sexually abused in their day- to-day lives? Silence is not golden when we see nearly 60% of women suffering from domestic violence in Sri Lanka. Silence is not golden when we hear 5 women get raped daily in Sri Lanka. Silence may very well be mistaken as consent to enhance violence. This is where we have been speaking-up because we all want a society free from violence.
Several stakeholders, including NGOs, INGOs, UN, Civil Society actors, Ministry of Health and relevant ministries have launched campaigns to prevent gender-based violence. These campaigns are never restricted to Colombo, it went all over Sri Lanka. However, we have to do more.
The Forum against GBV, which consists of nearly 30 organisations, carried out an island-wide media campaign (on TV and radio), launched for the first time where 16 men/boys spoke out against violence against women through 16 TV social messages and 16 radio messages. We popularised the new number to report violence assigned by the Police 011-2826444
We have to speak up and reach out to men, women, girls and boys because violence does not know any boundaries. A single drop of water turns into a stream and then unites into a fast-flowing river. Similarly, an individual voice against GBV could be a collective voice that turns into a growing campaign against GBV.
We cannot do it alone, it is everyone’s responsibility to stop violence against women and girls.