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POLITICS-PHILIPPINES: Rice and Condom on the Election Agenda

MANILA, Feb 19 2010 (IPS) - Rice and condoms do not usually land on the same list of household basics in the predominantly Catholic Philippines, but extremely poor couples here with huge families would choose rice if given the two options.

This is what Fe Nicodemus, head of KAKAMPI, a Philippine non-government organisation advocating reproductive rights, learned when her group distributed free condoms in an urban poor district of Manila recently as part of her group’s advocacy.

“When we were distributing condoms, there was this group that arrived and started distributing rice,” she recalled. “The people quickly moved to the other group, but we continued to give condoms to those lining up for rice, hoping that we could still put contraceptive use in their minds even if their stomachs were empty.”

It was no surprise, said Nicodemus, but what was unexpected was that the rice distributors, who were actually from the local government of the city of Manila, threatened them with arrests if they did not stop what they were doing, as they were told that they were violating Executive Order (EO) 003, a local ordinance that rules out the promotion and distribution of family planning and artificial contraceptives, among other provisions.

Nicodemus recounted the incident in a news conference Thursday in Quezon City – former capital of the Philippines – that gathered reproductive health advocates from other NGOs such as the Forum for Family Planning and Development (Forum), EnGendeRights, Inc. and the Philippine Legislative Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD).

“The poor are made to believe that poorly spaced pregnancies and having too many children that they can no longer care for is not a problem,” Nicodemus said. She added that families in this poor district had children as many as nine; the smallest family has six.

Lawyer Clara Rita Padilla, executive director of EnGendeRights, called for the repeal of EO 003, which was enforced by former Manila City Mayor Lito Atienza in 2000 and continued by the incumbent mayor, Alfredo Lim, whose office adopted a policy not to provide funds to buy contraceptives that should be given free to Manila residents. Both politicians are aspiring again for the same position in the May 2010 elections.

Benjamin de Leon, president of the Forum, said, “Manila residents who are poor took the brunt of their former mayor’s policy, and they are still reeling from the impact of such restrictive policy under the current mayor, which is especially felt by poor women who cannot afford to buy a 25-peso (54 U.S. cents) kilo of rice for their families.”

Manila is only one of a few local governments in the Philippines that disallow the promotion of family planning through modern contraceptives, a policy that is also endorsed by President Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo, who instead recommends only natural family planning.

These local governments and the national leadership follow the same course of action as the Philippine Roman Catholic church, whose bishops recently warned the electorate not to vote for candidates who support the Reproductive Health bill that has been pending in Congress.

According to the bill’s principal author, Representative Edcel Lagman, the proposed law seeks to provide funding for the country’s population programme.

“It is a departure from the present setup in which the provision for reproductive health services is devolved to local government units, and consequently, subjected to the varying strategies of local government executives and suffers from a dearth of funding,” he said in his article published in August 2008 in the national newspaper ‘Philippine Daily Inquirer.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippine’ Episcopal Commission on Family also issued ‘Catechism on Family Life and the 2010 Elections’, an edict that warns that family planning and contraception and support for legislation on reproductive health are sinful, that condom distribution promotes promiscuity.

Padilla said government and church-imposed restrictions to access information and means of family planning and even the prevention of sexually transmitted infections is, first and foremost, against human rights and the Philippine Constitution and is detrimental to the health and Filipino families, especially women and children.

“Government officials and those running for public office must know that 11 women die every day because of pregnancy complications,” said Padilla, citing maternal mortality data from the United Nations Population Fund State of the ‘World Population Report 2008′, indicating 230 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.

The lawyer also cited data from the recently launched 2008 National Demographic and Health Survey, which shows that 26 percent of married Filipino women aged 15 to 24 have already begun child-bearing. The survey also said one in three births is either unwanted or mistimed; over half of married women 15 to 49 years old do not want another child, and 82 percent of married women want either to space their births or to limit childbearing altogether.

Women who either do not want any more children or want to wait before having their next birth but are not using any birth control methods are between 15 and 29 years old, belong to the lowest quintile in wealth, rural women and women in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, which is composed of predominantly Muslim provinces and considered the poorest region in this South-east Asian country.

The PLCPD, another group that advances the Reproductive Health Bill, urged candidates for national, congressional and local elections to uphold reproductive health and rights. “Government officials must be reminded that they are mere representatives of the people and not that Catholic church and its bishops, and that their obligation is to give importance to a person’s right to reproductive self-determination,” said Ramon San Pascual, PLCPD executive director.

He said it has been eight years since the RH bill was filed in the Philippine Congress. “If we have a comprehensive reproductive health care law, we will not have restrictive policies in place,” he said. “We will have more women having access to sexuality education and reproductive health information and services.”

The NGOs also disclosed that they and other reproductive rights advocates belonging to a task force have submitted three official requests for inquiry to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Woman to investigate alleged discrimination and other treaty violations resulting from the implementation of EO 003 in the city of Manila.

The initial request in June 2008 asserted that the Manila policy violates the Philippine Constitution. In March 2009, the task force requested a fact- finding country visit to investigate reproductive rights violations of the city government of Manila and the Philippine government against women and their families.

The request, which the advocates said remains pending, was submitted to six U.N. Special Rapporteurs on health, violence against women, education, human rights defenders, freedom of religion or belief and the Independent Expert on extreme poverty.

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