Culture, Católicas, and Contraception: Advocating for Reproductive Health and Rights in Latin America

Akimbo is participating in The Latina Week of Action for Reproductive Justice, an effort meant to raise awareness and spur dialogue about unique perspectives of and by Latinas on reproductive justice. As part of this week, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health is hosting a blog carnival, encouraging Latina bloggers to write posts about contraception (our theme) from their perspectives. The week of action runs August 9 to 15th.

The fight for reproductive rights and health has a way of reigniting itself when you least expect it. Just when you think you’ve made progress in ensuring women’s access to contraception, another threat or obstacle seems to pop up.

That’s why it’s so important to recognize the gains that Latin American advocates and their international allies have made towards securing women’s access to comprehensive reproductive health services, even as we acknowledge that there’s more to be done.

As a U.S.-based advocate working for sexual and reproductive health and rights worldwide, and as a young woman of color negotiating her own health and rights  I’m excited and inspired by the progress, growth, and resilience of the Latin American feminist movement.

IWHC’s partnership with the Latin American feminist movement began in 1986, when we invested in a number of young, innovative organizations working on women’s rights in Brazil.  At the time, many Latin American countries were transitioning to democracy, which was marked by the rise of a burgeoning women’s rights movement.  We provided technical and financial support to these organizations so that they could expand and develop as institutions, and encouraged them to forge national and regional alliances around key issues in women’s health and rights.

Today, IWHC’s partners in countries like Brazil and Peru are at the core of a strong regional feminist network.  They are promoting new understandings of democracy and public health in an impressive variety of cultural, social, and political contexts, many of which contain strong, fundamentalist opposition to issues such as abortion and contraception.  Much of the success of this work has been related to strategic efforts to ensure the separation of church and state and encourage responsibly informed public dialogue.

In Peru, our colleagues Catholics for the Right to Decide—Peru and PROMSEX led recent efforts to reinstate the free distribution of emergency contraception (EC) in the country’s public health facilities. EC had previously been accessible for free in the public health system,but  the Peruvian Constitutional Court had ruled in October of 2009 that clinics run by the Ministry of Health (MOH) clinics were banned from distributing it.

When the government decided to reinstate the distribution of EC, it was considered to be a great win. Ensuring the free distribution of EC was and still is a necessary measure to ensure that all Peruvian women –not just the rich– have access to EC and the ability to control their fertility. As Oscar Ugarte Ubilluz, the Peruvian Ministry of Health (MOH), explained, “We recognize the reproductive and sexual rights of the women of Peru, above all those of scarce economic resources.”

But there is still more to be done to ensure that Peruvian women have access to a full range of reproductive health services, not just EC. For example, abortion in Peru is currently illegal except in cases where the life or health of the woman is threatened.

In Brazil, IWHC works closely with groups such as Instituto Patricia Galvao and Catholics for the Right to Decide-Brazil, which have successfully advocated for sexual and reproductive rights policies without ignoring the Catholic faith of the majority of the population. Separation of church and state is core to the implementation of these policies, but so is cultural respect and sensitivity. Now, the upcoming presidential elections serve as an important event in maintaining this practice and thus determining the future health of Brazilian women.

We hope organizations like this will continue to make gains and receive recognition for their importantwork. And the International Women’s Health Coalition will continue to work closely with local leading feminist organizations—in Peru, Brazil, and across the Diaspora— to ensure that states implement policies protecting sexual and reproductive health and rights.

In  the words of Program Officer Denise Hirao:

“Latin America will only be a fully developed region when it fully ensures women’s rights. In a region so widely influenced by religion, that requires a clear rule of law in which health and human rights are placed before ideology. I’m inspired by the ongoing work of advocates in the region to both ensure women’s sexual and reproductive rights and health and allow for Latin America to reach its full development potential.”

Click here to join the chorus of voices asking this week for contraception to be included as preventative care in health care reform.

Click here to learn more about IWHC’s work in Latin America.



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