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UN Women’s Committee makes inquiry into sexual and reproductive health rights in the Philippines

23 June 2015


The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has issued a summary of an inquiry initiated on the basis of information received in 2008 from three women’s rights NGOs in the Philippines.

The NGOs challenged the conformity with several provisions outlined in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women of executive order 03 issued in 2000 by the then Mayor of the city of Manila. The order promoted “responsible parenthood and … natural family planning,” and discouraged the use of modern forms of contraception. According to the NGOs, this limited women’s and girls’ access to sexual and reproductive health services in that municipality, and also resulted in a ban of modern contraceptives.

The NGOs also noted that a subsequent executive order - EO 030 issued by a new mayor in 2011- was also in breach of the State’s obligations. It purported to support the free choice by couples of their method of contraception, whilst explicitly providing that there would be no funding for "artificial birth control." Further, no measures were put in place to make contraceptives available and affordable.

In November 2012, after having received the consent of the Government of the Philippines to make an inquiry visit to that country, two members of CEDAW met with representatives of State and local authorities, and interviewed a number of medical professionals in health centres and a government-run hospital, civil society representatives as well as 60 women aged between 19 and 49.

The Committee found that the implementation of the two executive orders had resulted in the denial of information about modern contraception methods and access to sexual and reproductive health services, with damaging consequences for women’s health and livelihoods, which amounted to violations of their human rights.

The Committee especially emphasized the detrimental impacts for economically disadvantaged women and adolescent girls.

“While the wording of Executive Order 003 does not explicitly ban modern contraceptives, its implementation resulted in the withdrawal of all supplies of modern contraceptives from all local government-funded health facilities,” said Pramila Patten, one of the CEDAW members who conducted the inquiry.

“Family planning information and counselling other than ‘natural family planning’, such as abstinence, cervical mucus, body temperature, calendar and lactational amenorrhea methods, were also denied to women,” she added. “Misinformation about modern methods of contraception listed on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines was also frequently reported.”

The women interviewed described to the investigators the difficulties experienced in using natural family planning methods that contributed to tensions with their husbands or partners and fostered domestic violence. The Committee also noted the damage to women’s mental and physical health due to multiple pregnancies, and their greater exposure to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as HIV/AIDS.

The State had undermined the right of women to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children, and shown an official and deliberate policy which systematically placed a certain ideology above the well-being of women.

“Gender stereotypes were at the heart of the policy denying access to modern contraception. The executive orders incorporated and conveyed images of women’s primary role as child bearers and child rearers, thereby perpetuating discriminatory stereotypes already prevalent in the Filipino society,” Patten stressed.

“They impacted women’s capacity to make free and informed decisions and choices about their health care, sexuality and reproduction, as well as on their autonomy to determine their own roles in society," she added.

Veronica Birga, Chief of the Women’s Human Rights and Gender Section at the UN Human Rights Office, highlighted the importance for future similar inquiry submissions to the Committee of its analysis of the grave and systematic character of the violations caused by the executive orders.

“In finding that the violations were grave and systematic, this inquiry focused on the large numbers of women and girls impacted; and the impact on the nation’s rates of unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, maternal mortality and morbidity, and exposure to STIs, including HIV/AIDS,” Birga said.

“This inquiry is also a clear example of the indivisibility of rights – when a woman’s basic autonomy to make decisions about her body is denied, her health, her education, her prosperity are all threatened.”

At the end of its inquiry, the Committee made a sizeable number of recommendations to the Philippines including to decriminalize abortion; ensure universal access to a full range of sexual and reproductive health services, commodities and related information; remove barriers to such services; and reintroduce emergency contraception.

The Committee also recommended that, in line with the Constitution of the Philippines providing for the separation of the Church and the State, the Government should ensure that State policies and legislation give priority to the protection of women’s health rights, in particular their sexual and reproductive health rights, over any religious postulates that may lead to discrimination against women.

23 June 2015