Monday, 26 January 2015

A moment of euphoria in a long battle for women’s rights in El Salvador

By Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland
This morning I woke up to the news that “Guadalupe”, a young woman unjustly imprisoned in El Salvador after having a miscarriage, had been pardoned.
It was an ecstatic moment, and soon Amnesty International colleagues all over the world were firing off celebratory messages welcoming the news. Justice, for one person at least, had prevailed.
“Guadalupe” was just 18-years-old when she was imprisoned in 2007. She received a 30 year sentence after authorities wrongly suspected she had terminated her pregnancy. El Salvador has one of the most draconian abortion laws in the world, criminalizing abortion on all grounds, even when a woman’s life or health is in danger and in cases of rape. Women suspected of having illegal abortions are also often cruelly and deliberately charged with homicide, as in Guadalupe’s case. Members of the Legislative Assembly had voted on 16 January on whether to pardon her but “Guadalupe” lost her plea by just one vote. But last night the assembly voted again and this time the pardon was granted. Now, after seven years, Guadalupe will be returning to her young son.
“Guadalupe” is one of a group of 17 similar cases (“the 17”) that will come before the Assembly petitioning for a pardon in the coming months. All are women who come from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds and are serving sentences of up to 40 years for pregnancy-related charges after flawed prosecutions and trials.
Their requests for a pardon have been going through a complex process which includes a judicial review by the Supreme Court of Justice and subsequently requires a majority plenary vote in the Legislative Assembly.
But along with the joy I felt at hearing the news, was the nagging memory of all the other women that had suffered the same fate.
They were stories I knew only too well.
I was in El Salvador last October as part of an Amnesty mission to the country focused on our My Body My Rights campaign. It was a trip marked by stark contrasts. On one hand I was appalled by the impact of the total ban on abortion there on the human rights of women and girls, on the other, incredibly inspired by the amazing women’s rights activists I met during the trip.
Those activists are of course been euphoric with the news. Many of them were in the assembly building watching over the vote. I watched their anxious tweets and Facebook posts from afar. Activists like Morena Herrera and Sara Garcia, and lawyers like Denis Munoz have been working tirelessly for years to reach this moment. The release of Guadalupe could be a watershed moment in their fight.
But there is much more to do. Fifteen of “the 17″ women that activists in El Salvador and across the globe have been campaigning for, still languish in prison. One of the 17 was conditionally released last year but her conviction still stands and she risks being returned to prison unless she too is pardoned.
As part of my visit to El Salvador I met another of “the 17″, Maria Teresa, in Ilopango prison. Conditions there were deplorable. Prisons in El Salvador are 900% overcrowded.
Maria Teresa had been in prison for three years already when we met. Just like Guadalupe she had suffered a miscarriage but doctors called the police, reporting suspicions that she had an illegal abortion. Like other young women living in poverty, she was judged as guilty of a crime as soon as she presented to doctors. She was charged with having had an abortion, but those charges were later changed to aggravated homicide and she was sentenced to 40 years.
I don’t know yet if she’s heard the news. I can only hope it will bring her, and the many other women imprisoned on these horrendous charges, some small relief. I hope it offers them some hope, I know it will double the determination of Amnesty International members across the globe to work to secure justice for her, for the rest of “the 17” and for all women and girls who are criminalised and who suffer grave human rights violations as a result of the total ban on abortion in El Salvador.


Sunday, 25 January 2015

Women's rights, taxes and SunRail: Rant 30-Word Rant

Republicans are again on the wrong side of history on climate change, like they are on women's rights, minimum wage and Wall Street regulation.

Liberals are having a hissy fit that a movie about God, guns and an American hero blows away box-office records. It's a beautiful thing to see.
When the president asked for equal pay for women in the State of the Union address and not a single Republican stood or clapped, it said a lot about the party.

The national debt was $10.6 trillion when President Obama took office. Today it's $18 trillion, $7.4 trillion higher, averaging $1.24 trillion per year. Yet he crows, "I won." We all lost.
The president's proposal to tax the rich so he can give their money to the middle class sends the wrong message; success is punished so mediocrity can be rewarded.
President Obama deserves praise for wanting to reduce taxes for the middle class and increase taxes for the wealthy. The former will spend more and stimulate the economy; the latter would hardly be affected.
Where is the outrage over the rise in violent crimes in Orange County? It is time for Orlando and Orange County law enforcement to come up with a campaign to increase the safety of our residents and visitors.
SunRail did not operate on Martin Luther King day. It was a federal holiday, but not all businesses were closed. What about service workers? We worked Monday. Stupid decision.
The concept of free speech does not give one the right to yell, "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Hence, a satirical publication should be careful about whose ox it gores.
Please don't take away "Mutts'' from the comics, as a reader suggests. This gentle friendship between a cat and a dog ironically helps us remember and rekindle our own humanity.
It's no surprise that Pope Francis wants to enter the United States by crossing the southern border with Mexico, for he not only identifies with unauthorized immigrants but sympathizes with their cause.
Now that people can afford gas and food because of low gas prices, the Republicans' response is more taxes to jack the price back up so Big Oil and Wall Street can reap big profits.
How ironic. Gov. Rick Scott is on TV talking about mental-health care when he and the Republicans cut the programs to the bare bones. That's why help wasn't available for John Jonchuck.
Urban Meyer leaves Florida for Ohio State and still gets a Gatorade bath.


Thursday, 15 January 2015

Burma’s ‘transition’ leaves women’s rights behind

Last week’s events to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women were an important reminder of the scale of violence faced by women across the world. It is clear that violence – whether physical, economic, psychological or structural – is an experience shared by women and girls of all creeds, colours and ethnicities. Concern with the violence faced by women, though, sits alongside many other issues on the international development agenda. Balancing between these competing – though not mutually exclusive – interests necessarily weakens the response to any single element, often at the expense of the most marginalized. Nowhere is this more evident than Burma.
The list of social, political and economic issues facing Burma has been well rehearsed. Of these, perhaps the most damaging is the violence directed towards women, particularly those in the country’s ethnic communities. Despite the narrative around Burma’s transition, this violence has continued unabated. Indeed, it is being exacerbated by governments, investors and development actors intent on developing Burma, despite clear warnings of ongoing human rights violations. Acknowledgement by the UN that Burma’s legal frameworks contravene norms of international law and promote gender inequality have not galvanized action to safeguard the human rights of women. Nor have well-evidenced accusations of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by the Burma Army. The clearest manifestation of this inaction is the continued spectre of sexual violence.
Since 2010, the Women’s League of Burma has documented 118 separate incidents of sexual violence and attempted sexual assault across Burma’s ethnic communities – a number believed to be a fraction of the total abuses taking place. Crimes against women in these communities are committed systematically and with impunity. Survivors are forced to fear speaking out, and human rights defenders working with them face daily harrassment from state authorities. Despite the rhetoric around Burma’s transition, concrete action against the perpetrators of these crimes remains absent. Whatever transition is happening in Burma, it is not being felt in the country’s most marginalized communities.
While the country’s backsliding reform process has been acknowledged, nothing is being done to address the root causes of the human rights abuses faced by women. The international community has been quick to seize upon investment opportunities in the country’s ethnic states, citing their potential to combat the structural violence faced by women through the creation of jobs. Investment in marginalized communities represents an opportunity for women to lift themselves out of decades-long cycles of violence and poverty. This is a well-rehearsed narrative, in which there is some truth. But this overly simplistic analysis of the root causes of the violence faced by women is leading to wrong-headed policies to eliminate it.
The contention that investment in ethnic communities will reduce violence against women ignores the primary driving force behind it – the de facto impunity of the Burma Army to commit human rights abuses. Burma’s legal framework has created an environment in which the military can rape, torture, forcibly evict and extort without fear of repurcussion. The link between increased militarization and human rights abuses is clear. The security provided to investments by the Burma Army is directly correlated with the insecurity, fear and intimidation of civilians, particularly women. There are many debates surrounding women’s economic empowerment, but one thing is evident: investment in Burma’s ethnic communities is driving violence against women, not undermining it.
Partly owing to this enthusiasm to invest in Burma, there has been a collective readiness to trust the Burma government’s commitments to ending sexual violence at the hands of the Burma Army. Last year, the government published the National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (NSPAW) – a strategy paper to uproot the discrimination and violence faced by women. Although welcomed as a purposive step forwards, the ambitious plan has not yet brought any change to the lives of women facing rape, torture and displacement. In light of this, the good faith of the international community would appear to be misplaced. Yet the belief in the sincerity of the government continues to undermine calls for the substantive reforms needed to safeguard the human rights of women.
The same can be said of the UK government-led Declaration of the Committee to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. The international response to the Summit held in June of this year in London, and the Declaration which resulted, showcased the global support for eradicating sexual violence in conflict. When the Burma government became a signatory, they were lauded for their reformism and desire to build a more peaceful country. Six months later, however, no steps have been taken to implement it – and militarization across the country continues to drive human rights abuses, including sexual violence. Moreover, the holistic reponse required to eliminate sexual violence in conflict remains absent, not least because of the exclusion of women from the conversation surrounding it.
Burma has the lowest levels of women’s political participation of any ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) country, and one of the lowest globally. This is evidenced by the omission of women from discussions establishing a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement to end decades-long conflict between ethnic armed organizations and the Burma Army. Women in communities effected by conflict know that a ceasefire is a necessary but insufficient condition for establishing a sustainable peace, and ending sexual violence at the hands of the Burma Army. To achieve that, a political dialogue between conflicting parties must include the voices of women – whose experiences of conflict are distinct from, and often more acute than, those of men. As long as the terms of women’s participation in Burma’s political and public life are determined by men, the violence which characterizes the lives of so many will not cease.
The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign and International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women are timely reminders of the discrimination and violence which women across the world face every day. In Burma, this is an issue which cuts to the core of the power structures which have subjugated women and girls for decades. If the international community is serious about helping shape Burma’s development for the better, the human rights of women must be their focus.
David Baulk is a Gender and Development consultant, focusing on the human rights of women in Burma. He is based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and can be reached on davidbaulk [at] 
- See more at:


Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Kamer’s Akkoç: Women’s groups excluded from İstanbul Convention process

As violence against women continues to be a growing problem in Turkey, women's rights groups have expressed concern that they face exclusion from the İstanbul Convention, a new continent-wide framework established to prevent and combat violence against women and girls, and this week's guest for Monday Talk explains how it happened.
“There are blatant violations on the part of government officials in selecting the right organizations. This commission, which includes only three organizations that the Ministry of Family and Social Policy has selected, lacks legitimacy,” said Nebahat Akkoç, a women's rights activist who established the Women's Consultation and Solidarity Center (KAMER) to combat violence against women.
She was referring to the ministry's selection process for members of the Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO) -- the first step in establishing an independent expert monitoring body for the İstanbul Convention.
Several women's rights groups, including KAMER, have expressed concern regarding their exclusion from the selection process. The three organizations that the ministry selected were the Women and Democracy Association (KADEM), the Women Healthcare Providers Association (KASAD) and the Women's Rights Association against Discrimination (AKDER).
“It is dubious whether or not those three organizations really accept the Council of Europe Convention [İstanbul Convention]. Nominations for the GREVIO candidates should be completed by March 2 [2015]. We will watch and see what happens until then,” Akkoç added.
Evaluating 2014 and the state of violence against women, Akkoç said 260 women were murdered in 2014 and about 20 percent of those women had court-ordered restraining orders against the offenders.
“We've seen that women who are supposed to be protected cannot get their identities changed, and they become open targets despite being under the protection of police officers,” she said.
Answering our questions, she elaborated on the issue.
Since KAMER was established in 1997, you have been trying to prevent violence against women. Since then, has violence against women decreased or increased in Turkey?
Since KAMER'S foundation in 1997, we have been saying that all women have experienced at least one type of violence in their lifetime. In other words, all women have experienced violence. However, women accept this violence because they do not know exactly what violence is or they accept violence as the natural result of being a woman. For that reason, we have been working to raise awareness among women both about violence and how to avoid violence.
According to two separate studies in 2008-2009 [Violence in Family study of the General Directorate for the Status of Women (KSGM) and the study of Prof. Yeşim Arat and Prof. Ayşe Gül Altınay] about violence in family, 90 percent of women said that “there is no right type of violence.” Therefore, violence has always been there.
As a result of our work, women started not to hide violence that they were subjected to, started to get support to escape violence, and violence which was experienced secretly has become visible. Even though visible violence scares us all, it is good that it is visible. As women overcome the threshold of fear, and trust officials that their applications for safety will result in their protection, then they will receive more support, and we will be able to see the real dimensions of violence. In addition, it seems unavoidable that women who seek their rights start to experience violence again.
What is the situation in regards to violence or murders in the name of “honor”?
Murders in the name of “honor” are murders in which family members make a decision about the murder and who will commit it. In recent years, there have been cases in which people who solicit such murders started to get punished. We can also say that positive changes in the TCK [Turkish Penal Code] have had a deterrent effect in preventing murders in the name of “honor.” Still, we watch news of murders in various parts of Turkey. We found that 260 women were murdered in 2014 [according to the KAMER and Bianet archives]. About 20 percent of those women were women who had protection orders with decisions of courts. We've seen that women who are supposed to be protected cannot get their identities changed, and they even become open targets together with a police officer who is supposed to protect them. We have also seen that a police officer who was ordered to protect a woman was killed in front of an İstanbul courthouse. Therefore, women who experience violence decide to get a divorce and demand protection should be seriously protected during their lifetime.

‘Municipalities manage not to open shelters'

There are not enough shelters to protect women from violence in Turkey. Besides, they seem not to be in good condition. I remember an investigative report in Taraf daily about an horrendous situation in a women's shelter in İstanbul. Do you think there have been improvements in that regard?
I also observed that shelters have not been in a very good condition, and they will never be good enough. First of all, women arrive at shelters with physiological and psychological wounds because of the cycles of violence. Besides, they have had to leave their homes and sometimes their children behind. These are difficult things. On top of that, if difficult conditions await them in the shelters, life becomes unbearable. However, not all shelters are the same. There are decent ones. Still, shelters in Turkey are not able to provide rehabilitation for women to prepare them to conditions of life. There are a lot of women who had to leave shelters because their time was up. There are only about 100 shelters in Turkey, and they are not enough. We need at least 1,500 shelters. Municipalities do not manage to open shelters as they always find reasons not to. They don't see shelters as a priority.
What is the trend in the world when it comes to violence against women?
We have mutual projects with six member states of the European Union. Plus, we have projects with some women's organizations in the Middle East. When it comes to violence against women, Turkey is behind the EU countries but ahead of Middle Eastern countries. Some of our politicians have still not understood the concept that men and women are “different but equal.” Therefore, it is difficult to say that there is strong political will that is going to provide gender equality. Europe has overcome those difficulties. But I can say that we are in a better situation than the Middle Eastern countries in which women do not have equal inheritance rights in comparison to men, and multiple marriages are legal for men. Unfortunately, no country has completely provided gender equality yet. The countries which we consider as having progressive democracies have women's shelters, too, and they work in full capacity. We can say that all women in the world experience violence and discrimination.

‘Politicians need to adopt new approaches'

I would like to expand on the “equality” question. As you know, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been accused of blatant sexism after declaring that women are not equal to men. He said that because of biological differences women and men could not serve the same functions, and manual work was unsuitable for the “delicate nature” of women. What did you think when you heard his statement?
Statements of politicians are having more positive or negative influence than they would have ever imagined. Not only remarks regarding gender issues but any type of rhetoric in Ankara might have bad rebounds in Anatolia -- it might cause tensions; might lead to hopelessness; and might even lead to violence and murders. What needs to be taken into account is laws, decrees and conventions that are signed. Where we want to reach at the end is what the İstanbul Convention asks for: the elimination of violence against women. Nevertheless, some public officials, in other words, politicians who are supposed to support implementation of laws, utter some words which reflect only their personal views, but those words attract more attention than laws or conventions. As a result, law enforcement officials do not pay attention to laws but what politicians say.
When we look at the year 2014 regarding women's rights in general, what pluses and minuses do you see?
Of course, because of the hard work of KAMER and tens of other women's organizations, we see positive developments. However, violence against women and murders are problems of the society. Only when all segments of the society become sensitive and have raised awareness to the gender equality issue, can the problem be solved. We have problems in this regard. A new and improved Civil Code, and the new law against violence have been adopted by the same government with support from women's organizations. However, when there is no strong political will, it is very difficult to have a change in mentality. We need a different approach. For example, it is a fact that birth rate is dropping and the population of youth is decreasing in Turkey. The first thing to do in this regard would be to take precautions to prevent unemployment and poverty, and then provide opportunities to encourage more childbirth. However, without doing all this, asking for more births and making statements saying that “abortions equal to murders” fuel discrimination against women and anger women.

‘Gov't has made blatant violations in selecting GREVIO delegates'

Women's organizations in Turkey have been struggling to participate in decision-making processes of the government in relation to women. Recently, women's rights groups have been protesting the government's rejection to include them in the committee to select the Turkish representatives of GREVIO, which is the auditing commission of the İstanbul Convention [GREVIO stands for the Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, established to monitor implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, also known as the İstanbul Convention, which Turkey signed in 2011]. What are your observations in this regard?
The meeting date in regards to selecting members to the monitoring commission in Turkey was announced only two days in advance. Despite hardships, women's groups went to Ankara; they attended the meeting, too, but were not included in the process of selecting three organizations that are supposed to monitor the implementation of the İstanbul Convention. The selection procedures of those three organizations were not transparent. They were obviously predetermined. Officials in Ankara had a chaotic environment for women's organizations, in order to prevent their inclusion in the process -- they were asked for various documentations, etc. In the end, officials said that women's organizations did not have sufficient documentation. KAMER had all of the documentation that the officials asked for, but was not included in the commission.
There are blatant violations on the part of the government officials selecting the right organization. This commission, which includes only three organizations that the Ministry of Family and Social Policy selected, lacks legitimacy. In addition, it is dubious as it whether those three organizations really accept the Council of Europe Convention [or the İstanbul convention]. Nominations for the GREVIO candidates should be completed by March 2. We will wait and see what happens until then.
As you know, Turkey became the first country to sign the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, known as the İstanbul Convention. The Turkish government has been always boasting about being the first country to sign it. A friend told me that Turkish women's organizations asked an official from the EU, shortly after Turkey's ratification of the convention, why the EU member states did not sign it, and the official said they were preparing the groundwork first and it would take at least one year. I think this is what our problem is.

‘Who would want to use abortion as a birth control tool?'

It was then-Prime Minister Erdoğan who kept repeating that the decreasing birth rate is a problem and families should have more children. And as you mentioned, he vehemently came out against abortion. What is your comment?
Having politics with the norms of males objectifies women. When only a few people have authority in ruling the country, those few people establish the norms. And those politicians construct modernity or conservatism over women; they do not really make efforts for gender equality. They even come out against gender equality, and they also have plans for those women whom they see as objects. Those types of politicians meddle with everything related to women, including their clothes, speech, abortion, and how many births women should have and how! For them, women are objects that need to be shaped. We always had this type of approach to women in Turkey; it's not new. This is how gender inequality has been reinforced and reinvented. At the end of the 1990s, there were official efforts for family planning in the Kurdish regions in Turkey because of fears of an increase in the Kurdish population. KAMER had made a statement back then, and had accounts of women regarding the situation. We were considering filing a lawsuit against the government, but women were timid and did not want to file any complaints about the situation. As you know, population planning and family planning are two different things. We support women's rights to have a child when they want and how many they want. Today, the ruling party's rhetoric about population is somewhat the opposite of the rhetoric of the 1990s. There has been such fallacious propaganda against abortion [by the ruling government] as if women use abortion as a method of birth control! I've been working with women for a long time and I have not heard from even one person that she has used abortion for birth control. Abortion is an operation. Women have abortions usually with fear and great hesitation. Who would want to use it as a birth control tool?

‘Girls' school attendance rates increase'

What do you think was the most exciting development of 2014 concerning women?
For me, the most exciting development has been the increase in school attendance rates for girls. This rate reached 100 percent for the first time in the history of the republic according to data from the Ministry of Education. In the provinces of Erzurum, Ağrı, Kars, Iğdır, Adıyaman, Diyarbakır and Mardin, it is 100 percent. And in most eastern provinces it is more than 99 percent. This increase is obviously due to education assistance given to families who send their daughters to school. We need more work to ensure those girls continue to attend school in the second and third parts of the 4+4+4-year education system. For example, education assistance could be increased for families who have girls in later years of education. More important, we need a change in mentality to emphasize the importance of women's education. In addition, for women over 25 years of age, the illiteracy rate is around 50 percent. We need to have projects to increase the literacy rate in this age group.

‘Detailed media coverage of murders scare women'

What do you think was the most concerning development of 2014 in regards to women?
The most fearful thing was that women who tried to escape from violence have not found enough support, they haven't been protected well enough, and therefore, they have experienced more violence and lost their lives. Since murder stories get very detailed coverage in the media and they arouse fear among women who read and watch them. Because of that, women who would like to escape from violence are afraid of the repercussions of escape since the number of women who have been murdered after demanding protection is very high.

‘Early marriages decline'

What developments do you see when it comes to early marriages in Turkey?
Early marriages have steadily declined to 33 percent in 2013 from 52 percent in 1997. In the last five years, the percentage of early marriages remains under 30 percent. Early marriages are marriages that are forced on people by their parents' decision. It is possible to prevent early and forced marriages, and for that we need the enforcement of penal sanctions, and official agencies should work with women's organizations.


Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Vogue India Launches #VogueEmpower

VOGUE INDIA's #VogueEmpower initiative continues to be one of the publication's biggest success stories as ongoing support floods in from around the world. 
Established to raise awareness of the oppression of women in India and the violation of their rights, the campaign - which launched in the magazine's dedicated October issue - has targeted print and online publications, social-media platforms, multi-media mediums, and encouraged offline activities and fundraisers to propel its cause into the international limelight.
"As a woman, as a mother, and as the editor of a fashion magazine largely produced by women for women, a pertinent question at the throe is 'What does it mean to be a woman in India?'" explained Priya Tanna, editor of Vogue India. "While issues of women's rights and safety, and of discrimination and abuse in India have been subjected to many a national discourse, it can no longer be relegated to lengthy debates. It warrants action. And it warrants action from each one of us."
The #VogueEmpower October issue of Vogue India

Among the many famous names that have responded to Tanna's call for action so far include Margaret Atwood and Sheryl Sandberg, who have shared their recipes for empowerment; Susan Sarandon, who penned an editorial outlining the importance of raising boys with the right values and attitudes towards women; Sudha Murty, who has facilitated cervical cancer screenings for underprivileged women; Academy award-winning composer AR Rahman, who dedicated his album Raunaq to the initiative; and Bollywood director Vikas Bahl, who chose to spread the #VogueEmpower message by creating a special film, Going Home.
Picture credit: Getty

On the fashion front, houses including Manish Arora, Fendi, Jimmy Choo, Louis Vuitton, Tom Ford and Gucci (the latter of which has given the campaign prominent space on its Chime For Change website to encourage donations) have all pledged their dedication to the cause - and there are ways that you can too.
"The website,, allows everyone to act for the good cause," said Tanna. "Those interested have two options: make a direct donation to philanthropic organisations and partners of the operation (Chime for Change Gucci and Give India), or click on the link to purchase clothing and accessories donated by more than 70 Indian and international brands on Amazon. The proceeds from the sale will go to our charity partner, GiveIndia."
"While the past decade has seen some progress with regards to women's rights and equality, be it education, work, and health," continued Tanna, "we still have light years ahead of us to truly have achieved sufficiently in this regard."
For more information about #VogueEmpower and to get involved with the discussion, visit


Monday, 12 January 2015

We can’t be complacent about pregnant women’s rights in Britain

This morning, women stood precariously on the last solid ground in the landscape of UK reproductive rights, looking ahead at an uncertain and treacherous footing. The court of appeal rejected the claim for criminal compensation in the case of CP vs Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. Thankfully, following this judgment, we still have solid ground under our feet.
Had the unnamed local authority’s solicitors successfully persuaded the court that excessive drinking in pregnancy was a violent crime against a foetus (now a seven-year-old child with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder), it would have marked a dramatic departure from the way the UK legal system has previously defended the autonomy of pregnant women.
Thankfully common sense and accurate interpretation of the law prevailed. Lord Justice Dyson advocated that the role of the state in these cases should be to compassionately provide care and support for children with these additional needs, but not at the expense of criminalising their mothers.
Coming the day after the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) updated its intrapartum guidelines, which included extensive recommendations on treating women as individuals, with the full spectrum of rights, choices and dignity that this affords them, there is much to feel hopeful about.
For too long women have been shaken to the bottom of the pile in maternity care. In many ways the Nice guidelines are reacting to the realisation that we may have gone too far in the pursuit of safety and forgotten the key protagonist. Physical safety is of course of primary importance in all women’s health and reproductive settings. Yet in narrowing our focus to only physical safety (where often the baby is privileged over the woman even when risks are low), is dangerous for us all.
Safety is much broader than simple physical health, and pregnant women perceive safety and risk in different ways. Yes, they want to have a healthy baby, but they also need to feel physically, emotionally and culturally safe during one of the most significant times in their lives. Both are possible, but ignore women’s needs or make them feel financially, bodily, emotionally, culturally or legally unsafe, and the impact can be profound.
As the Birthplace in England study (which formed part of the evidence-base for the Nice guideline) demonstrates, it can lead to 35% of healthy women having serious physical interventions without benefit to themselves or their babies.
Moreover, the 2008 confidential enquiry in to maternal deaths found that suicide was the leading cause of new mothers dying. This figure has subsequently dropped, but as tragedies in the news this week demonstrate, women are incredibly vulnerable at this transitional time in their lives. No one is well served by making them feel invisible.
So while there is much to be hopeful about, we must also remain vigilant. Giving birth in the UK is now very physically safe overall, so pressure must be put on commissioners to ensure our services are designed around a broader concept of safety, just as Nice directs. We cannot allow phrases like “woman-centred” to continue to be buzzwords that lull those accessing services into a false sense of security only to find that the rhetoric frequently obscures a lack of choice, a failure to ask women to consent, or a coercion of them to do so.
The overwhelming majority of women are capable of making appropriate decisions for themselves and their babies – whether it is about becoming pregnant, ending a pregnancy, how to behave in pregnancy or how to give birth. We must create a culture and service that enables and trusts them to do so. For those who cannot, support, specialist help and investment in health and social care is the answer, not punitive measures.
Work must start on building on the CP case by actively putting women’s voices back in to maternity care and the broader reproductive framework it sits in. Women giving birth, making choices in pregnancy, deciding about abortion or accessing contraception are simply opening different doors along the same path. We must clear that path of obstacles by pulling together; as Birthrights and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service have done around this case.
The collective voices of the mother, the childless, the pregnant woman (like the heavily pregnant woman who confronted anti-abortion protesters harassing women outside an abortion clinic), and the pro-choice campaigner are vital across the entire reproductive justice debate. Together we can beat back incursions to our freedoms and insist that services support genuine choice, so that we remain on solid ground.