By now you'd have to be living under a rock not to know that the war on women has escalated and shows no sign of abating. Maternal health and reproductive rights continue under siege while overshadowed by the president's public stand on gay rights and the necessary focus on economic issues. But let's not lose sight of the fact that in the first three months of 2012 nearly 950 provisions were introduced targeting women's health services, contraception and abortion.
To put a human face on it consider this real-life woman profiled by blogger Peter Daou. Leticia lives in a small Texas town where her husband works construction. Mother of five, Leticia relied on the local Planned Parenthood clinic for basic health screening and free birth control pills until the clinic closed because Republicans in the state legislature cut the budget for women's health care by two-thirds. Now Leticia's closest clinic is sixteen miles away and the waiting list is at least a month long. Like her friend who discovered a breast lump, she wonders how she will get to the clinic for the care she needs. These two women have become victims of a war we glibly call the "war on women" right here in our own country.
But what about women elsewhere? Sadly, the outlook isn't any better. Activists in countries as diverse as Turkey, Israel, Romania, Austria and Poland are alarmed by rising violence, renewed efforts to curtail birth control and abortion, and reduced access to safe, affordable health care. Last year, for example, calling it a "lifestyle drug," Slovakia explicitly banned contraceptive coverage from public health insurance if the contraception was used solely to prevent pregnancy. (Sound familiar?)
In an attempt to reveal the "horrifying reality" of El Salvador's ban on abortion, the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a petition in March with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights calling attention to the "tragic and often fatal consequences" of the ban. According to the document, women having miscarriages and complicated pregnancies often suffer arbitrary imprisonment. The petition, filed on behalf of a 33-year old mother convicted of murder during her third difficult pregnancy, states that "El Salvador's laws have turned emergency rooms into crime scenes, forcing pregnant women to live under a dark cloud of suspicion." The young mother profiled in the petition was given a 30-year sentence for miscarrying. Denied a lawyer or an appeal, she was jailed and treated abusively before being diagnosed with cancer, which likely caused her pregnancy problems. She died, incarcerated, in 2010.
In Africa and Asia the war on women and girls is profoundly disturbing, and goes beyond reproductive rights. Here is just one chilling story, reported by Peter Daou: "Thirteen year old Aisha was stoned to death in Somalia by insurgents because she was raped"by three men " When she reported the crime to authorities they accused her of adultery and sentenced her to death. Aisha was forced into a hole in a stadium as 50 men buried her up to the neck and cast stones at her till she died."
Stories like Leticia's, Aisha's, and that of the woman from El Salvador abound. I've read about them and heard them first-hand. I've seen the consequences of female genital cutting, listened as women pleaded for medical attention while having no control over their own bodies, witnessed the physical and emotional consequences of domestic violence.
There are so many ways to wage war against women.
Sometimes it's keeping them impoverished, or silenced and afraid. Often it involves sexual violence; we all know about rape as a weapon of war. We've read the statistics about trafficking and child brides. Dowry deaths and female genocide still exist.
But what do we do about it? Not much. Only one-third of countries have legislation prohibiting violence against women, laws that are seldom applied. In Europe, a foundational principle of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights establishes the right of access to preventive health care, women's sexual and reproductive health but it has been largely ignored by the European Commission.
In the U.S., Republicans have fought against important provisions during re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) called the House version of the bill a "flat-out attack on women" for eliminating protections for immigrant women, Native Americans and the LGBT community.
The petition in El Salvador marks the first time an international judicial body is hearing a case of a woman imprisoned for seeking medical care due to an obstetric emergency, as a result of a total abortion ban. The case argues that the country's absolute ban on abortion violates the right to life, right to personal integrity and liberty, right to humane treatment, and the right to a fair trial and judicial protection.
It's a start, and one with direct links to every sphere of women's lives. But we have far to go if we are to move forward, and so very much to lose if we slide back.