One Day, One Struggle: Building a Movement for Women’s Reproductive and Sexual Rights

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Commentary Human Rights

One Day, One Struggle: Building a Movement for Women’s Reproductive and Sexual Rights

Leila Hessini

Across the globe, men are making key decisions about women’s most basic human rights. Women’s, feminist, queer and LGBT groups, however, have claimed a space that cannot be denied and are standing up for our rights. One poignant example of these efforts culminates today, November 9.

Across the globe—from once political hopefuls Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock in the United States to Mohamed Morsi and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Egypt and Turkey—men are making key decisions about women’s most basic human rights: those linked to our right to bodily integrity and to our sexual and reproductive lives. They are, in effect, trying to silence women’s voices and our diverse histories of movement-building and organizing.   Women’s, feminist, queer and LGBT groups, however, have claimed a space that cannot be denied and are standing up for our rights, breaking with arguments based on right-wing ideology and bogus science and proactively linking women’s sexual and reproductive rights.

One poignant example of these efforts culminates today, November 9. The One Day, One Struggle campaign is a collective effort organized by the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR), a solidarity network comprised of NGOs and academic institutions in the Middle East, North Africa, and South and Southeast Asia—and coordinated by Nasawiya, a collective of feminist activists—that work to promote sexual and bodily rights as human rights in Muslim societies. The CSBR emerged in 2001 a few weeks after 9/11 when activists convened in Turkey at a symposium on Women, Sexuality and Social Change in the Middle East and Mediterranean organized by Turkey’s Women for Women’s Human Rights (WWHR), a global nongovernmental organization (NGO) interested in gaining legal reforms in Muslim societies worldwide. Participants at that meeting all worked on various forms of sexual oppression and the press statement following demonstrates the multiple ways that women’s rights are controlled: “Sexuality is not only a personal and private issue, but it is also linked to systems of power politics and domination in society. Means to control sexuality are institutionalized not only in cultural and social norms and customs, but also in legal policy and practice.”

Criminalizing women’s sexuality and reproductive choices

A constant area of focus of the coalition has been on restrictive laws and policies. Across most countries in the region, homosexuality, sex outside of marriage and abortions are all considered crimes.  

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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The criminalization or severe restrictions of abortion and the consistent denial of women’s right to bodily autonomy and decision-making is a means of controlling women’s wombs, opportunities and rights. And the impact of such laws and practices is great. For example, The World Health Organization (WHO) finds that in countries where abortion laws are most restrictiv, induced abortion rates are higher overall, and unsafe abortion poses a particular health risk for women. As a result, more women trade their health or even their lives in an effort to control their fertility, particularly in countries where abortion is illegal and their basic human rights are undermined.  

Contemporary movements build on and indeed are informed by the past. In Tunisia in the 1970s, proponents for liberalized abortion developed a discourse in favor of expanded access to abortion. Prior to law change in 1973, opponents expressed concern that abortion would become “too easy,” and a major debate ensued over when, and under what circumstances, Islam allows abortions. To convince policymakers of the need for change, advocates for more accessible services used political, medical and religious arguments. Today, as the political landscape in Tunisia is shifting, advocates for women’s reproductive rights continue to keep the movement in the light. On November 9, 2011, the 3rd annual celebration of the global One Day, One Struggle campaign, Tunisian women’s groups selected “The right to abortion” as the main theme to give visibility to Sexual and Reproductive rights challenges and opportunities in the region as they are very concerned that they may lose ground on abortion.  

Similarly, in Turkey where abortion has been legal since 1983, efforts are being made to chip away at those rights. In May, Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan likened abortions to killings of children and indicated they should be limited. Shortly thereafter officials from the ruling Justice and Development party later indicated that they would propose that legal abortions be pushed back from 10 to four weeks, a decision that has no medical basis and is purely ideological. Women’s groups mobilized to stop the possible change fighting yet another example of men making decisions for women.  

Morocco civil society groups have also lobbied heavily for change in that country’s abortion policies. Prompted by archaic laws that require spousal consent or complex medical bureaucratic clearance in lieu, advocacy groups have pushed the abortion issues to the forefront of political debate. The Moroccan Association to Combat Clandestine Abortion showed that nearly 200 clandestine abortions take place each day in Morocco, many of them in unsafe conditions. Despite the need for reform, activists for access to safe abortion continue to meet opposition. In October, the Women on Waves ship was blocked from entering a Moroccan harbor.

It’s personal—and public and political.  

The stories highlighted for One Day, One Struggle are drawn from individual and collective experiences. In Pakistan, civil groups have organized an exhibit documenting daily individual struggles against patriarchy and an advocacy event in support of a domestic violence bill; in Egypt and Sudan, LGBTIQ of the Nile Valley area will hold a movie and discussion on sexual and bodily rights; in Indonesia there will be public discussions; in Malaysia, Sisters in Islam will present a performance on child marriage; and in Lebanon groups will curate an art exhibit on sexuality and gender.

True democracy will not be achieved in any country until gender and sexual discrimination is abolished and women’s rights truly are considered human rights. Comprehensive sexual and reproductive rights are the key to a more just future—for All.