Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of blog posts by leaders in health and health care who participated in Spotlight Health from June 25-28, the opening segment of the Aspen Ideas Festival. This year’s theme was Smart Solutions to the World’s Toughest Challenges. Stayed tuned for more.
Recently, I took part in the second annual Spotlight Health at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which gathered an amazing audience and speakers from around the world to talk about the most pressing global health challenges and to propose innovative solutions for these issues. I had the pleasure to share panels and discussions with more than 900 leaders, entrepreneurs, investors, and other stakeholders from 26 different countries.
I spoke on one panel titled, “The Next Generation of Global Health Leaders,” which included a discussion with bold thinkers like Elsa Marie D’Silva, Bryan Eustis, and Abraham Leno about the role of new voices in health care service delivery and policy. The panel was moderated by a wonderful young leader herself, Barbara Bush, who is also the co-founder and CEO of a fellowship program that has become a global platform and incubator for fresh perspectives and ideas that promote the right to health: Global Health Corps (GHC). I decided to take my commitment for health equity and make it a global mission by becoming a fellow in the 2014-2015 GHC class.
During the Q&A, one audience member asked us, “What is it that we [older human rights advocates] are not seeing?” The audience of mostly older advocates and donors was trying to understand what a fresher perspective might bring to the future of global health. I ventured an answer that summarized many of my experiences as a GHC fellow over the past year, working on women’s right to health.
I believe that young social justice advocates today must look beyond their scope of work and pay attention to individuals and organizations that are part of movements challenging their mission. It’s not just about what young leaders are capable of achieving, but also about what we are capable of preventing and counteracting in terms of obstacles. My main argument is that all young leaders must pay attention to opposition movements, and also that leaders in reproductive health and rights must be specially aware of these challenges.
As a human rights defender, I have learned that following and analyzing opposing trends is as important as minding my own work. I learned that lesson very early in my life.
Women’s Health In Colombia
I was born and raised in a small city in Colombia called Cúcuta and went to an all-girls Catholic school. My sexual and reproductive health education during my early years, if there was any, was informed by a religious dogma. Girls were often encouraged to pursue an education but many fell through the cracks with the additional burdens imposed by Colombian patriarchal society such as pressure to spend time devoted to household chores, constant exposure to sexual harassment, and a persistent lack of access to sexual and reproductive health care services.
Also, topics such as safe and legal abortion were taboo, and local policymakers often avoided the subject or supported its criminalization. Prior to 2006, abortion was prohibited in all cases in Colombia, even if it was required to save a woman’s life. Nowadays, the Constitutional Court allows legal abortions in the cases of rape and incest; risk for the mother’s life; and medical conditions that make the fetus inviable.
The most common arguments against women’s control of their sexual and reproductive choices that I heard in my hometown were informed by myths and pseudo-science. I was told by local leaders, teachers, and physicians that “contraceptive pills lead to permanent sterility” or “abortion will kill you, always.” I grew up surrounded by these false claims but never gave them much thought. However, other girls my age seemed to believe in this pseudo-science and to modify their behaviors according to it.
I believed that somehow women would get the facts and that somehow, somewhere they would get adequate health care information and treatment. But in reality, women and girls were denied access to sexual and reproductive health care and dying from preventable causes such as unsafe abortion, as a result of these myths.
Because of my experiences growing up in my town, I moved to Bogotá in 2006, went to law school and became a human rights practitioner passionate about defending women’s rights. Coming from a household that believed in education and science, I realized that many of the policies in my country affecting my body were not based on research but rather on ideology.
I also realized that there were movements of people who wanted to deny women’s basic right to health and undermine evidence-based arguments in an effort to curtail access to sexual and reproductive health care and rights. I used to think these movements were based in developing countries like mine, that they probably came from places where religion plays a big role in politics.
But to my surprise, during my work as a Global Health Corps fellow placed in New York City, I witnessed a strong anti-choice (which I believe is anti-women) movement in the U.S., a movement that has also crossed borders to Africa and Latin America.
On A Global Level
Contrary to the wishes of the anti-rights movement, progress in sexual and reproductive rights is still finding its way in the developing world. For example, recently, Mozambique modified its penal code to de-criminalize homosexuality and to scrap their total abortion ban. Advocates welcomed these reforms as a way to get rid of “old colonial rules”.
Meanwhile, anti-rights activists in the U.S. are promoting regressive reforms and finding a way to protect this type of legislation. Recently, a federal appeals court recently ruled that Texas could enforce a law requiring that abortions only take place in highly specialized health care facilities, which would prevent thousands of women from access to safe procedures in the already available centers. Catholic organizations welcomed the decision about Texas’ H.B. 2 law claiming that abortion is dangerous but fail to provide scientific evidence as to why it is better to make procedures clandestine and illegal.
Leaders at the forefront of the anti-choice movement, also referred to as the pro-life movement, often get invited as “experts” before criminal courts. These same activists are instrumental to obtaining long-term convictions against women and girls not only on a global level (i.e. El Salvador), but also in the U.S. (i.e. Indiana).
In El Salvador, abortion is prohibited under all circumstances and women who undergo them are punished with jail time. The 1998 Constitution reinforced this prohibition by protecting life from conception. Women who are accused of having an abortion can be charged with aggravated homicide and prison terms of 30-50 years. The “floating lung” test used in the sentencing of Purvi Patel is just one dangerous example of pseudo-science used by judges in both Central America and the U.S. to prosecute women even in cases of miscarriages or gynecological emergencies.
As a young global health leader, connected to a global network, I am aware of how rapidly claims such as “[r]ape victim mothers need real help, not abortion,” spread here and are echoed to deprive rape survivors around the world of their most fundamental rights. I have also witnessed how this exact message killed a bill in Peru that would have granted women and girls access to safe abortion services after surviving a rape.
A generational shift is bringing young people together to lead the future of health care and human rights advocacy. This generation is committed to their own work but is also ready to debunk the claims of anti-choice activists who want to send us back in time when it comes to women’s health care. By observing and analyzing what those working against human rights are doing we can prepare to provide scientifically based arguments and share them with decision makers. We need to be ready to protect and disseminate messages on the safety of emergency contraception or the impact of unsafe abortion in maternal mortality.
In order to build our movement towards health equity, young leaders need to be watching for challenges.