RH interpellation in communities
Should senators and representatives carry out interpellation on the reproductive health (RH) bill in their home communities? Yes! Our legislators are, after all, conscious of their accountability to their constituents and their mandate to represent the latter’s interests. Why not, then, take the opportunity of the April-May recess to consult women living in the legislator’s rural and urban poor neighborhoods? Ask them about their lives, their health and well-being, and their views on RH.
Start by organizing small and informal community sessions with poor women, hearing directly from them how they feel about frequent child bearing, family planning and related RH concerns. Inquire how poor parents cope as they struggle to feed, raise and educate their children. What would these women like to see coming from the government to strengthen their own capacities for addressing these problems?
To get accurate and uninhibited responses, select an experienced development-NGO worker to facilitate a free-wheeling but focused conversation. Make the initial sessions women-only (except for male legislators) so as to bring out women’s voices uninhibited by the presence of husbands, fathers, or sons.One further caution: leave the local bishop, parish priest, nuns and Church social action workers back at the convento. Otherwise the “culture of silence” will prevail—that Asian syndrome identified by Manila Archbishop Luis Tagle as preventing people from openly criticizing Church practices and pronouncements.
Focus on those women with many children. To locate them, enlist the help of the barangay health worker (BHW), who knows the local situation well and can pinpoint the larger families. For it is when a woman faces a fourth or fifth pregnancy, usually unintended and unwanted, that her thoughts turn seriously to family planning if it is available, or to a clandestine and unsafe abortion if it is not. Perhaps if the BHW trusts that no one will “tell” on her, she will hazard a guess as to how many local maternal deaths stemmed from botched abortions brought on by the desperate women themselves.
As our inquiring legislators return to Metro Manila for the May 7 reopening of Congress, their direct exposure to real-life RH stories means they can vote with confidence in favor of Senate Bill 2865/House Bill 4244. Their forays into the barangays will have affirmed the results of Pulse Asia’s 2010 survey, one of many showing that women and couples want access to modern family planning and their choice of methods including contraceptives (90 percent), and want government budgetary support for these supplies and services (87 percent).
Legislators can counter the arguments of Catholic elites that government funds should not be allocated to RH programs by emphasizing the injustice of their position and its dismissal of social disparities. Research on low-income communities indicates that the poorest among the already poor are those families with the largest number of children (5-12 or more). National Demographic and Health Survey 2008 statistics demonstrate that the bottom quintile (20 percent) of women bear an average 5.8 children, twice as many as the richest 20 percent of women, with 2.6 children. The poorest women, who wanted only 3.5 children compared to the richest wanting 2.5, ended up with 2.3 more children than the richest women. Obviously in this Catholic country, better-off couples can afford to and do purchase contraceptive supplies to manage their family sizes. Poor couples cannot. Is it not hypocritical, then, for anti-RH Catholic elites to object to allocating tax revenues to poor women so the latter can have the same choices? Where are equity and morality in that equation?
Still another reason for our legislators to favor the RH bill stems from their mandate to defend the separation of Church and State. This means crafting policies that do not favor one religion over another. Those apprehensive about Church pressures on them to vote against the bill should recognize that there is no “Catholic vote.” Witness the fate of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines Episcopal Commission on Family Life’s catechism for the 2010 elections. That document proclaimed that a vote for a pro-RH candidate was not “morally permissible” and that this position was “non-negotiable.” The result? Pro-RH candidates won in the 2010 election, just as anti-RH candidates lost.
The message to our legislators, then, emphasizes first and foremost accountability to poor and excluded constituents—in the case of RH, poor women. When Congress reconvenes on May 7, the senators and representatives who have really listened to their female voters can safely dispense with further interpellation on the RH bill. The messages from suffering women are loud and clear: It is simply unacceptable for 11 of them to die daily and for legislators to condone that outcome. Eager to give their families the lifetime of loving care that only a mother can provide, women—and their spouses—want access to RH services of their choice, including contraception.
On May 7, then, no more delays! A Yes vote on HB 4244/SB 2865 is a vote for women’s lives and family wellbeing. A Yes vote tells constituents that their senator or representative is listening to them. That may make all the difference in the 2013 elections.
Mary Racelis is a social anthropologist and member of INCITEGov.
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