4 November 2015 | By Gabby De Cicco
AWID spoke with Sergia Galván, Executive Director of Colectiva Mujer y Salud [Women and Health’s Collective] from the Dominican Republic, on the realities faced by women with regard to their sexual rights and reproductive health.
A conservative context: between the rule of faith and political indifference
The Dominican Republic’s (DR) Penal Code dating 1884 prohibited abortion under all circumstances. Only last year was abortion finally decriminalized under some circumstances, ie. when the mother’s life is at risk, when the pregnancy is the product of rape or incest, and when there is malformation in the fetus. While this will only enter into force on December 18 2015, three appeals to declare it unconstitutional have already been submitted; one of them from a conservative, Right-wing entity linked to the Catholic Church and called ‘Matrimonio Feliz’ (Happy Marriage).
In June, the Chamber of Deputies sent the Sexual Health and Reproductive Health Bill1, which was brought before it four years ago, back to the Health Committee because Members of Parliament (MPs) argued that the Bill needs to be discussed with those having objections to its content. The Dominican Council of Evangelical Unity, Christian Action Group and the Family Ministry from the Catholic Church. all consider the Bill to be pro-abortion and warned that, if passed, it could “turn the State into a promoter of an early start in sexual activity by children and of eroticism in school curricula”, as reported by the daily “Listín Diario”.2
There can be little doubt that ultraconservative governments that have been in power in the DR for the last 15 years, and which are very close to the Catholic hierarchy, do not enable any advances in Dominican women’s sexual and reproductive rights.
Sergia Galván say the setback in the consideration of the Bill only reinforces “the acute fragility already existing in the country in terms of recognizing sexual and reproductive rights (SRR), precisely because we lack a legal framework to include and make them explicit”. Galván explains that the fundamentalist front that is made up of “that triangle of the political ultra-right elite, the Catholic and Evangelical church hierarchies always overpowers the political forces with which it allies itself. Also, we lack a political class — be it from the Left, the Center or the Right — that takes a position that could be called progressive and pro-rights, with only very few exceptions”.
Consequences of the lack of a legal framework
Dominican women experience several problems resulting from this lack of legal framework and of other policies guaranteeing them direct and friendlier access to services related to reproductive health.
“In the Dominican Republic, maternal mortality takes the lives of about 200 women every year”, reports Galván, adding that according to data from the Ministry of Public Health, 80% of those deaths are avoidable. She also points out, “20% of those deaths are associated with abortion under risky conditions.”
Another problem is the lack contraceptive methods, due to shortage of products or because the Manager of Network of People’s Pharmacies, which sells medicines at an affordable cost, refuses to sell them because of her beliefs. Social security schemes include contraception in their basic packages but insurers also fail to provide them.
The landscape Galván describes is particularly bleak and is compounded by the lack of sexuality education in schools. She says, “Only 7% of students access sexuality education in our country’s schools. The Catholic Church hierarchy stops sexuality education from being available in schools. We are now undergoing a curricula review process and working to see if we manage to include sexuality education but we are facing strong resistance on the part of the Church hierarchy and the most conservative sectors that always interfere with educational policies.”
Galván explains that in 1954, during General Trujillo’s dictatorship, DR and the Vatican signed a Concordat, that is basically an agreement between both parties by which “a Catholic moral is being imposed on the country, and a religious moral on schools, and it also says those teachings must be provided and decided upon by the Catholic Church. We are demanding that the State repeals the Concordat so the influence of the Catholic Church on these issues can be reduced at least to some extent”.
The increase in teenage pregnancies clearly shows the results of the lack of campaigns and sexuality education, “One fifth of our young women, of our adolescents, are mothers and among some population groups the percentage is as high as 40%”, says Galvan, adding, “We have also seen an increase in violence during pregnancy, including a high level of obstetric violence whose most shocking expression are the cesareans performed unnecessarily.”
Advancing women’s rights in a repressive environment
Galván explains, “The feminist movement in DR is very small and faces many difficulties to do advocacy work. There is a certain level of demobilization, maybe due to lack of resources, or to the negotiations they have with their funders, or to the impact of the Catholic Church or to political co-optation. It’s a movement for which work is hard, and sometimes people are afraid to become spokespersons on these issues because there will be consequences. There is a lot of harassment“.
Galván explains that in spite of the unfavorable national landscape, her organization is tireless in its attempts to influence public policies and drafting laws, always working with the Parliament to bring their proposals forward. She reports, “We have submitted proposals when both the Penal and the Family Codes were amended, and also when the possibility to reform the National Constitution was discussed.”
The Women and Health’s Collective also monitors the implementation of existing laws, trying to ensure that those rights are guaranteed and organizing demonstrations to denounce the rights violations. Galván explains that they have “compelled the Committee on Human Rights to formulate specific recommendations on SRHR, sexual orientation, gender identity, abortion and sexuality education in schools, also demanding specific measures from the Dominican government. We permanently monitor State commitments based on CEDAW, the Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and also the Convention on the Rights of the Child“.
Colectiva also strengthens the skills of local women actors, through training and learning processes, workshops, seminars and courses.
“We are always working with rural, union and urban women so they become aware of their rights that are being violated, of how to report those violations and demand that they are protected”. Their tireless communication work is done through their webpage and also by publishing easily accessible and understood leaflets. “My organization is a small one, but once a month we occupy the headlines of national newspapers making these issues visible and raising awareness about them. This is the result of ongoing mobilization work“.
Given this reality, a key issue is building alliances at the national and the international levels. To work on abortion, “We created the Coalition for Women’s Lives and Rights that brings many women together”. Also for the abortion issue and the Law on Sexual and Reproductive Health, Galván highlights that their alliances with the Center for Reproductive Rights, Ipas, Catholics for the Right to Decide and Women’s Link have been key.