Lourdes Osil is a poor woman from Manila City, Philippines, in her thirties. She has seven children, a few more than she had wanted. Make no mistake, she loves her children and husband dearly, but her helplessness and inability to provide them with the most basic things that any parent would want to provide her children—and would feel responsible to provide—has made her a very sad and tormented woman.
Ms. Osil is one of hundreds, and possibly thousands, of women who over the last decade have been systematically denied their most basic human rights in Manila due to a religious and political agenda. Over nine years ago, the former mayor of the city, Jose “Lito” Atienza issued an executive order which effectively bans the use of contraception. Yes, that means condoms, birth control pills, and even sterilization are virtually prohibited in the city. The purported goal of the policy was to ensure the “moral rejuvenation” of society and Mayor Atienza claimed the ban to be “pro-life.” Yet, the reality is the ban has devastated, and continues to devastate, the lives of women and their families, particularly poor families who rely on health facilities run by the local government. Folks who are already struggling are driven further into extreme poverty due to unintended pregnancies. And women are forced into pregnancy even when it endangers their health.
Thursday, President Obama and other high-level American officials will meet with Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The President and his administration should use this opportunity to reclaim the United States’ longtime role as a champion of equality and human rights and call on President Arroyo to repeal this destructive policy and end the injustice that women in Manila City continue to suffer.
Sadly, the President of the Philippines has stood by while women have suffered and she has done nothing to aid them. In fact she has condoned the policy by proclaiming her full support for natural methods of family planning to the exclusion of all other methods for one reason only—political survival. Many in the Philippines are of the view that the only reason she has managed to survive a string of political scandals is her pandering to the Catholic Church, which has advocated against family planning and therefore, undermined women’s rights.
Before Ms. Arroyo ends her term as President next year, she has one last opportunity to set things straight. As President, she can ensure the passage of a proposed reproductive health bill currently pending in Congress by changing her position on women’s reproductive rights and expressing her support for the bill, or at least by promising not to veto it. Although not perfect, this bill could indeed transform women’s lives in Manila City, and in the Philippines as a whole, by ensuring access to a broad range of reproductive health services and reducing the risk of pregnancy-related diseases and death which in the Philippines is one of the highest in the region.
Let us hope that the Obama administration decides to put women’s rights on the agenda for its meetings with President Arroyo and ultimately, the Filipino president makes the right choice. The health and lives of women in her country depend on it.