COMMENTARY: Looking beyond the impotency of states to address repro health rights as human rights

Certain similarities do occur among countries that share the same conditions of either want or prosperity. Among the most evident of these are the steadily declining birth rates in European and North American societies, regions where much of the planet’s wealth is concentrated. In Asia, Japan is one country that has started to also feel the frostbite of “demographic winter,” a phenomenon that, like in the West, may be considered a parallel consequence of assigning more equitable roles to both men and women as members of the productive forces.

The trend of having more and more women in the workplace and even in the halls of governance and policymaking is pronounced in Western Europe, United States and Canada, incidentally, countries where there is a strong liberal tradition and human rights consciousness. While it is debatable whether actual practice has kept up with theory in the field of gender equity, the fact remains that the increasing presence of women in the workplace has significantly had altered the way societies define the reproductive roles of both sexes. The shift in reproductive behavior was as much a product of economic circumstances as it was of liberal politics, each one supporting the other in a symbiotic manner.

Certain conditions favored the development of gender-equity awareness and allowed it to permeate and be accepted into the public’s consciousness. It was largely indebted in particular to a liberal political environment and largely unfettered economic growth that made possible the absorption of many women into the labor force. As such, it was immune to resistance from likely opponents, e.g., conservative churches whose influence in cosmopolitan societies has since waned.

Meanwhile, as expected, the population train in these societies slowed down, almost coming to a full stop in fact. Yet it has only been in recent years that they have started to confront the pitfalls of rapidly falling birth rates, among them the growing scarcity of younger people who will take the place of an ageing workforce. In many instances, the knee-jerk response has been to fill the void by hiring migrant workers, especially those coming from impoverished nations.

This stopgap measure provides immediate relief to the lack of workers and makes good business sense. Alien workers are willing to take on blue-collar jobs despised by their local counterparts – at a much lesser cost at that. But adverse consequences, e.g., the tendency of such measure to create tensions between local jobseekers and migrant workers, might erupt as soon as the former realized that the employment pie was getting smaller.

Interestingly, the massive migration of Asians and other nationals to affluent economies in the North results in large part from the sheer inability of their governments to create ample opportunities that will significantly offset high population growths. This inability, aside from rendering many workers jobless, has meant declining budgets for health, education and other basic services. To a certain degree, the culprit is not just economic stagnation but also the allocation of scant resources to unproductive sectors such as the military.

In certain cases where there are deliberate efforts to develop the economy, the policies and strategies are inappropriate. The result is often growth without equity whose benefits only widen existing social divides. On the spatial level, such as the case in the Philippines, cities and rural areas have experienced grossly uneven levels of development, in effect, perpetuating the feudal setup that characterizes the economic and power relations in most rural villages.

The uneven levels of development simply mean the concentration of industries and commerce in big towns and cities. Ever since, this urban-based development scheme has created its own chain of problems. The cycle starts with the migration of job-seeking provincials to cities. Landless and homeless in a new environ, they are forced to join the hordes that congest on vacant areas where their tenure is not secure, making them susceptible to the risks that accompany such kind of existence.

By a stroke of luck, a few may succeed in fulfilling their simple dreams. This, however, is the exception rather than the rule. And the rule is, unabated urban migration has turned out to be a nightmare for most migrants who have to be content with living in squalid slums and/or in a setting that breeds anti-social behavior that springs from both want and desperation.

In the Philippine context at least, decongesting the cities is impossible without long-term, sustainable economic incentives that will lure people back to rural areas. The country’s backward agrarian economy prevents the development of alternative opportunities for ordinary farmers. The vast majority thrives on being tenant-cultivators, the decades-old agrarian reform program having failed to dismantle large landholdings. The aggressive expansion of plantations devoted to export crops, which means the displacement of tenants, has further reduced the chances of farmers to improve their lot without leaving for proverbial greener pastures. Worse, the entry of plantations has made peasants mere wage farm workers, giving rise to a rural proletariat whose survival depends on the whims and demands of foreign markets.

Any observer perhaps will conclude that this situation of joblessness, landlessness and hence despair is a social volcano waiting to explode. Indeed, the Philippines has gone through episodes of revolutionary struggles sparked by popular disenchantment with the way things have been.

Successive Philippine governments tried to stave off social unrest by, among others, looking outside, i.e., encouraging jobless and/or underpaid Filipinos to work overseas. The deployment of workers abroad has somehow defused tensions aside from bringing in high-value currency to an economy beset by foreign debt, corruption in high places and related problems.

In addition, the country instituted a family planning program in response to what was referred to in the 1970s as “population explosion.” The program popularized the concept of having small families as the key to a comfortable life.

The emphasis on attaining lower fertility rates was, wittingly or unwittingly, one of the many attempts to defuse social tensions resulting from the increasing inability of government to respond to the needs of an ever-growing population. While this approach is not entirely flawed, it ignored the social, cultural and economic factors that explain the prevalence of large households in the Philippines. It failed or refused to recognize that a smaller population is irrelevant without an equitable access to resources. And since the program received substantial foreign funding it could not escape suspicion that it was more of a sales pitch for the makers of condoms, birth control pills and other contraceptives.

The Philippine experience thus provides a classic example of a population “crisis” caused not so much by high birth rates contrary to official claims, and an approach that utterly failed because it was unable to grasp the complexities of the situation. Policymakers have to recognize that over and above the need to rationalize birth rates is the imperative to democratize access to economic opportunities, allow greater participation of women in the creation of wealth, and create conditions that will vastly improve gender relations. These are socio-economic and political variables that would contribute to the attainment of a desired reproductive behavior.

In the Philippines — and in any country for that matter — where strong class contradictions exist, attaining any of these conditions requires a determined political response in many fronts. Incidentally, the government is only one part of the equation.

Many factors hinder the government from becoming an effective role player in giving the issue of reproductive health rights the broad, serious attention it deserves. Experience shows that, left to the discretion of government alone, the issue would be reduced to statistics, that is, whether a particular population management program has succeeded in curbing fertility rates. “Education” drive is focused mainly, if not solely, on promoting various methods of contraception. Hardly any attention is given to gender programs to empower women in order to eventually smash down social and cultural stereotypes that enslave them in as far as the issue of reproduction is concerned.

Furthermore, in most cases, the government falters whenever the Roman Catholic Church speaks its mind on population issues. In fact, church interference has been the biggest stumbling block to the passage of a law recognizing the reproductive health rights of women. Except for a few officials, the government has generally been held hostage by the perceived influence of the church in shaping public opinion on policies. It is debatable whether the faithful really follow the guidelines of their bishops and priests on matters concerning reproduction. But the fact remains that the state often thinks twice each time the church questions its policies, putting on hold what could have been progressive measures concerning population management. It’s a case of politics getting in the way of [a sound population management program].

On one hand, these realities appear to weaken the position of the (Philippine state) as a major actor in the campaign for the recognition of reproductive health rights as human rights. It patently lacks the political will to create conditions that would promote such rights as part of the groundwork for bringing about a balance between population and development.

On the other hand, the importance of state intervention cannot just be ignored. Non-state actors such as the civil society groups may fill in the void to some extent. In the final analysis, however, the ultimate goal of their advocacy is to influence state policies so that appropriate programs may be instituted and more public resources allocated for the advancement of reproductive health rights.

It is thus not a question of whether political intervention to family planning and fertility behavior [can] be brought into harmony – at the global, national and regional levels – with human rights, including the right to reproductive health, to self-determination, to freedom of movement and residence within and across the borders of the state, to a secure existence and social protection. Rather, the question is more on the nature of political intervention needed to realize a balance between population and development, a response that aggressively addresses the roots of the problem.

Clearly, if experience were the basis, a purely state-centered intervention would not be feasible. Civil society has to come in with more vigor to ensure that their agenda was heard.

(H. Marcos C. Mordeno, one of the MindaNews editors, received in 1987 the Jose W. Diokno Award for winning in a national editorial writing contest sponsored by Ang Pahayagang Malaya and the family of the late senator.)