MANILA – Early last month, it was reported that the United Nations said that Manila’s local policies harm women’s reproductive health (RH) rights.
In April 2015, the UN Committee on the Convention of the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) released findings on its inquiry on Manila’s Executive Orders (EO) 003 and 030, and stated that the Philippine government is accountable for these local laws that violate women’s right to access reproductive health information and services. The former, in practice, banned the use and distribution of modern contraceptives across Manila’s public health centers; while the latter, essentially prohibited the use of city funds for any program or supplies for modern contraceptive use. The findings added that it is “discriminatory” for a country to refuse to legally provide women’s RH services.
The CEDAW inquiry also presented two important gains on how Philippine laws can be interpreted and implemented to effectively respect, protect and fulfill women’s reproductive rights. First, it upheld the provision in the Philippine Constitution guaranteeing the separation of Church and State; and second, it reinforced the national government’s accountability for Manila city’s actions despite the local government autonomy provided for by the country’s Local Government Code.
Separation of Church and State
“No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” (Article III, Section 5)
“The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable.” (Article II, Section 6)
In the findings, the CEDAW Committee also observed that, despite the principle of separation of Church and State being enshrined in the country’s constitution, the Roman Catholic Church has considerable influence on public policy as evidenced by how religious doctrine is referenced in debates on the country’s sexual and reproductive health policies, both at the national and local government levels.
This is a long-lamented reality faced by women’s rights advocates in a country that is 80% Roman Catholic. Thus, the Committee’s findings bring enlightened perspective and highlights the need for the Philippine government to “guarantee separation of the Church and the State to protect women’s sexual and reproductive health rights through sensitizing members of parliament and national and local government officials to eliminate all ideological barriers limiting women’s access to sexual reproductive health services, commodities and information,” as expressed in the CEDAW recommendations.
National government’s accountability to fulfill obligations under CEDAW
Second, while the local government of Manila City was found to be in violation of women’s rights by action – implementing a law that bans contraception, and later banning funding for contraception across health centers in Manila, the Philippine government was held accountable for the violation of women’s rights through its inaction. The Committee stressed:
“Decentralization of power through devolution does not in any way negate or reduce the direct responsibility of the State party to fulfil its obligation to respect and ensure the rights of all women within its jurisdiction.”
The CEDAW Committee found the Philippines accountable for the violations of rights of women and girls as the State “failed to address the effects of the implementation of EO 003 and EO 030 and, between 2004 and 2010, has at times either supported or condoned the policies of the City of Manila. Further, the Committee found violations under CEDAW given that the national government was not able to take sufficient and adequate measures to address the flaws of the Manila health system; and the Committee also observed that “the failure of the State party to provide the full range of sexual and reproductive health services, commodities and information resulted in unplanned pregnancies, unsafe abortions and unnecessary and preventable maternal deaths”. It was also noted that this had the most harmful effects on disadvantaged groups of women such as those from the huge urban poor population of the city, adolescent and girls, as well as those in abusive relationships.
Thus, apart from upholding provisions of the CEDAW Convention, the Committee’s findings underline that the Philippine government (national or local) cannot pass any legislation that violates women’s rights under the CEDAW Convention, and that the national government has an obligation to protect women from laws that violate their rights, and to proactively take steps to fulfil these rights.
Globally, this successful use of the CEDAW Convention represents one small win for advocates of sexual and reproductive health and rights fighting against religiously conservative governments that curtail women’s right to self-determination and bodily integrity. Now zoom out to see even a bigger picture, and we can also celebrate that this is a huge victory for supporters of international conventions as a relevant, and meaningful vehicle for civil society to claim their rights — especially the often more neglected socio-economic rights — and to hold their governments accountable.
This is a triumph that can and should encourage civil society to ensure that their government’s signing and ratifying international human rights laws and their protocols means something more than a diplomatic quid-pro-quo. It is a triumph that should remind state leaders that governing cannot exclude their obligation to ensure that laws are made in order to improve the lives of their constituents and not to advance a particular religious agenda.