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Q&A: "Reproductive Rights Can Overcome the Conservative Wave"

Interview with Carmen Barroso, Int'l Planned Parenthood Federation* - Tierramérica

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jul 18 2008 (IPS) - This year marks four decades of international recognition of people's right to decide how many children they want to have and when, and for that reason there is a great deal to celebrate, says Brazilian expert Carmen Barroso, of the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

Carmen Barroso, regional director of Int'l Planned Parenthood Federation. Credit: Courtesy of IPPF

Carmen Barroso, regional director of Int'l Planned Parenthood Federation. Credit: Courtesy of IPPF

Despite the wave of conservativism that threatens sexual and reproductive rights, today there are more advances than setbacks in Latin America when it comes to these issues, said Barroso, IPPF director for the Western hemisphere region.

Tierramérica's Mario Osava spoke by telephone with Barroso, who holds a doctorate in social psychology, is a researcher in women's issues and founder of numerous non-governmental organisations around the world.

TIERRAMÉRICA: What is there to celebrate in Latin America with respect to family planning over the last 40 years?

CARMEN BARROSO: There were major advances. Across the region the human right to decide about life and sexuality has been recognised. The demands of social movements were incorporated into the public policies of many governments. Women decided to have fewer children, making effective their right to decide. The rates of maternal-infant mortality and morbidity were also reduced.

We are also celebrating institutional results. Women's groups and non-governmental organisations have multiplied.

TA: But does the current wave of conservatism threaten those achievements?

CB: Yes, there are risks. The conservatives learned from the progressive movements. They decided to fight in a more systematic way for their positions. There were setbacks in Chile (legal ruling against the "morning after" contraceptive pill) and in Nicaragua (banning of therapeutic abortion in all cases). But there were victories in Mexico, where abortion was legalised in the capital, and in Colombia, which authorised it for three circumstances. Emergency contraception is accepted and distributed in most of the countries. There have been more successes than setbacks.

TA: What other obstacles does family planning face in Latin America?

CB: Non-governmental organisations and the governments face difficulties in obtaining resources. Latin America lost priority in international aid. Furthermore, immense inequalities persist, between classes and between countries.

I've just returned from Haiti, where 200 people were crowded into an IPPF clinic, which indicates there is a strong demand. There is inequality also between adults and youths, with the latter having greater difficulty in access to contraceptives, resulting in teen pregnancies, or unsafe abortions.

TA: Why are young people vulnerable?

CB: Lack of information. The schools are resistant to integral sexual education that would allow young people to think of themselves as sexual beings and make appropriate decisions for a safe sex life. In August there will be a meeting in Mexico of ministers of health and education to discuss these matters.

TA: What impact has HIV/AIDS had on family planning issues?

CB: It was a warning sign. Those who defend sexual rights – pleasure in response to the repression of the traditional culture – played a positive role, but they forgot about the risks of sexually transmitted diseases.

Liberating sexual education requires preventive measures. Another effect was to activate the movements in defence of sexual rights. The Brazilian government uses television campaigns to promote the use of condoms, which would have been unlikely if the AIDS epidemic didn't exist.

But condoms are still used relatively little. There is much yet to be done, and advertising is important to promote their use. The aim now is the necessity to empower women to demand condom use when they are faced with male resistance.

TA: The reduction of maternal mortality seems to be a Millennium Development Goal that will be difficult to achieve.

CB: The high incidence of maternal mortality in Latin America is a morally unacceptable scandal. Its persistence reflects the weakness of women's power to demand effective public policies.

TA: Does unequal access to family planning have an effect on other social inequalities?

CB: There are difficulties in providing free, high-quality services to everyone, especially in remote areas. For example, in the upper Negro River (in the extreme north of the Brazilian Amazon) I saw a woman with complications from an abortion who had to travel several hours by boat at night to seek medical assistance.

The solution is a strong public health system. IPPF does what it can, but it is a non-governmental organisation that provides more than 18 million services annually in Latin America and the Caribbean, which is little compared to the need. Universalisation depends on the government.

TA: On the issue of population growth, do climate change and the food crisis reinforce the ideas of the Malthusian principle and of birth control?

CB: That neo-Malthusianism requires caution. The old argument that the population grows more quickly than food production is the most facile explanation. It is not true.

Yes, the consumption of people who didn't consume before did increase, and we should celebrate that they are overcoming hunger, but reject such an explanation. The fact is that it's more difficult to feed a growing population. The defenders of sexual and reproductive rights should also take into consideration the ability to feed everyone.

It is important to show that the principal cause is not demographic growth and that the global population poses new challenge for the world if we want fairness and to attend to the needs of humanity.

Global warming is due to the consumption of industrialised countries and the need to produce more food. That demands a more complicated thinking, not simplistic, in the search for solutions.

In that context, access to contraceptives has a double positive effect: it recognises the right of women who don't want to have more children and at the same time reduces the rate of population growth, making development and food security policies more feasible.

(*Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent. Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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