The RH bill: Ending Manila City's war on women

By Payal Shah and Jaime Todd-Gher

Posted at Jul 07 2009 12:38 AM | Updated as of Jul 07 2009 09:05 AM

Mothers attend to their babies inside a ward of a government hospital in Manila July 23, 2008. An estimated 50 to 60 deliveries occur daily at a government hospital in Manila, forcing staff to discharge new mothers as early as 12 to 24 hours after birth. In the face of a burgeoning population growth rate, women's rights groups and members of the Philippine Congress are currently pushing for reproductive health and birth control legislation, but strong opposition remains in the form of the influential and staunchly traditional Catholic Church. REUTERS/Cheryl Ravelo (PHILIPPINES)

The Reproductive Health Bill currently being considered by Filipino lawmakers has stirred up significant debate over its potential to promote economic development and improve access to healthcare, particularly reproductive healthcare. But one crucial point has been neglected: the Reproductive Health Bill is essential to remedy egregious violations on Filipino women’s international and national legal rights occurring under restrictive, ideologically driven policies, such as Manila City’s de facto ban on birth control.

The Manila City ban on contraception, also known as Executive Order 003, was passed nine years ago by former Mayor Jose “Lito” Atienza to effectively prohibit Manila City women - especially poor women - from accessing all forms of modern contraceptives, condoms, and information necessary to protect their reproductive health. As a result, women are unable to prevent pregnancy, even when it would jeopardize their lives, health, or ability to feed their families.

The ban’s devastating impact is nothing short of a deliberate and targeted condemnation of poor women and their families. For a woman who cannot afford contraceptives, the harsh effect of the ban is felt every day - when she is forced to limit the amount of rice she can provide for her children, when she is abused by her husband for declining sex to avoid pregnancy, or when she is forced to endanger her health with high-risk pregnancies that she could not prevent.

Further, each day that the Manila City ban remains in force, the Philippines government is in direct violation of its international legal obligations. The Philippines has ratified a number of international human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, that clearly recognize a woman’s fundamental right to family planning services and information - a right that underpins a host of other key human rights, including the right to decide the number and spacing of one’s children, the right to life, the right to health, the right to equality, and the right to be free from discrimination.  

International legal bodies have repeatedly condemned the grave and systematic impact of the Manila City ban. Yet the national government has done nothing thus far to mitigate this impact or strike down the ban. In a time when Filipino migration is on the rise and the Philippines is increasingly engaging with the world community, such fundamental violations in its capital city directly contravene the commitments that the government has taken on by ratifying international human rights treaties.

Should the Reproductive Health Bill pass, it would effectively nullify the Manila City ban, as its language clearly states that any legislation inconsistent with the federal law will be repealed. The Reproductive Health Bill is a critical opportunity for Filipino legislators to bring the Philippines back into compliance with its binding human rights obligations--and finally cease the horrific war on women in Manila City.

Payal Shah and Jaime Todd-Gher are human rights lawyers working with the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights.