(Plenary address delivered at the 11th International Women’s Health Meeting, Brussels, Belgium, September 15, 2011)
Permit me a moment of personal sharing. Before I left the Philippines, Senator Vicente Sotto, during his interpellation of a proposed bill to ensure reproductive health services in the country, projected the website of the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR). He chose particularly that part of the website which discusses abortion. He added that Dr. Sylvia Estrada Claudio is the Chair of WGNRR, and that she has been seen frequently with the authors of the reproductive health bill.
The proposed legislation does not, in fact, change the Philippine’s restrictive law on abortion. The proposed law however, will mandate humane treatment of women seeking post-abortion care. It will also assure access to sexuality education, emergency obstetric services, modern contraceptives along with a range of other services such as those which treat and prevent reproductive tract infections.
I will add that Senator Sotto and other legislators who oppose any legislation related to reproductive health, divorce, LGBTI rights, are open about the fact that they are doing the work of God. Many advocates also state that they are doing it out of obedience and respect for the Bishops of the Catholic Church. And yes, in case any of you were wondering, the Philippines is a secular republic. But in the Philippines, as well as in other countries, legal guarantees on secularism have not restrained the fundamentalists from violations.
Perhaps I should move to assure you that I do not yet perceive myself in danger. I should also add that the rabidness of the religious fundamentalists at home is related to the strength of our efforts for the reproductive health bill. Two weeks ago, Philippine President Aquino certified the bill as a priority measure.
I mention this because this is the 11th IWHM, we are on our 34th year of the contemporary women’s health movement since the very first IWHM was held in Europe in 1977. On the one hand we have achieved much as a movement. And yet on another, whether it be in Asia or Europe we are experiencing backlash and the continuing control of our bodies.
In 1977 and today regimes of control determine the way we work, love and live. Then and now, women have resisted. As long as there is a need for resistances there is a need for a movement. Where women work together to free themselves from class, caste, race, colonial, neo-colonial, heterosexist, and other regimes of control, there we shall find our movement.
In a paper of mine that has been put in our conference kits, I have mentioned a few reasons for our success. Permit me now to state where I think we must go. Why, despite our success, we are facing increasing poverty and control whether we be in Europe or Asia, or any other region of the world.
My dear sisters, I open my eyes and see that the world is poorer. There are large gaps that exist between the rich and the poor and the gap is ever-widening. Apart from this, the world is at war, led by a nation which reacted to the aggression of a few by punishing whole peoples. But big wars are not the only threats. Small wars are waged everywhere and the streets of our communities and the bedrooms at home can also be places of violence.
In places of worship, in the academe, in newspapers and websites, in village halls and international convention centers, whether these be in progressive democracies or known fascist regimes, women are experiencing serious attempts to roll back the gains of freedom. These are often led by religious groups but any type of group and individual may be the source of this.
In the meanwhile world organizations such as the UN, which we have invested in so that they may reflect our resistance and solidarity, have become increasingly bureaucratized and impotent. On top of the previous institutions of control like the Vatican, we see the rise of minor despots or major power institutions like the World Trade Organization.
In the meantime the environment is suffering and we are threatening the life of the earth itself.
Whether through militarism or environmental degradation we are being brought to the brink of destruction.
Please, I do not wish to raise a panic. Whenever there is a panic it is the women and children who are trampled in the stampede. Women are likely to be blamed for overproducing people causing poverty and environmental degradation. This is one reason we are told by some to stop making babies. Or, we are told the breakdown of our communities is caused by our licentiousness and that we had better go back to our homes to produce babies.
Shall I be honest now? As if I have not been honest before? Shall I have a small tantrum? For the last 21 years that I have been working with IWHMs I have watched as those of us coming from the global South had to speak louder when we said we wished to oppose the imperialism of the World Bank which made our governments cut down on health spending and impose user fees. I have also heard the criticism of lesbian women about their marginalization. And we may go on about others: the disabled, the women from various indigenous populations, etc.
I have seen how organizers have succeeded or failed to root out the very elements of the oppressive structures which the movement wishes to change. And as it is with the IWHMs so it is with our social movements.
But I am tired of recriminations and guilt. They are the power tools of the despots and the messiahs. We are a movement that understands that life means pleasure and that those who wish to create our lives for us will end pleasure for us, and that is where poverty starts. So resistance means an insistence on food, housing, health, but also pleasure.
And why is this so? Because I have come to understand that in the era of globalization control is not merely political it is also biological,
In magazines conceived in London but sold in the corner store in Bombay or Prague, people are told what bodies to have—what kind of hips, what kind of lips, what kind of sexual aspirations.
Fast and global systems of market surveillance all over the world make the gestures of rebellion or alienation by people in any part of the world today tomorrow’s chic and latest consumerist trend. Fashions are designed in New York, cut by women pattern makers in Manila and rolled out as clothes in Shanghai.
The extraction of profit at every moment of our human need to communicate or create has never been more efficient. Indeed, life itself is being patented for a profit.
This profit taking is so frenetic and so efficient that in capitalism’s boom and bust cycles, trillions of dollars are lost or gained over very short periods of time.
We cannot delude ourselves that this efficiency in profit making is not resulting in global poverty.
We cannot delude ourselves that this enslavement of our human capacities to capitalist extraction happened independently of gender, race, class, caste and other dimensions by which they wish us to perceive our humanity.
Let me be clearer: class, sex, race, heterosexist and caste systems are not separate entities. There is no such thing as a less racist capitalism or a less heterosexist caste system. The feminist insight that brought us to reproductive and sexual rights has been validated by the evolution of the world’s economy. Productive and reproductive systems derive from the same human creativity. When wealth is extracted from the poor, it begins by making us accept that these two moments of life, production and reproduction, can be separated. When power moves it dictates what we think of ourselves and our world. It does so only because it has to—because our lives are not like this and we resist.
But to understand the our own envelopment by hegemony is not a call to stop noticing the race, class, caste and other differences that cause divisions among us. I have no wish to excuse myself from my own shortcomings. I have no respect for those who would use political theory to excuse their own bigotry.
However, my ability to be bigoted is not the problem. Bigotry is the default option that biopolitical mechanisms of control instill in us. The problem is my ability to accept the world according to their making. Where I exclude myself from others and their struggles, there is where I fall into error. Where I conceive of the women’s health movement as not also a movement against globalization; where I conceive of the movement against sexism as not also a movement against heterosexism, where I conceive the movement against racism as not a movement against caste—that is where I fall into error.
Where I conceive that my ability to love can be stunted so that it stays in the confines of my home or tribe or nation, instead of allowing it to expand towards solidarity with all the world’s poor, there is where I fail.
We cannot be blind to the fact that the world’s economy is in trouble. Everywhere people are insecure about their futures and their jobs. In the meanwhile, the world financial crisis has not brought an end to capitalist greed because it cannot help itself. It falls to all of us to deal with this crisis.
It is wrong to think that world poverty comes about from the lack of democracy and equity in the area of production and not in the area of reproduction. The women’s health movement must not feel itself out of its depth when it engages the movement against globalization. At the very least we must recognize that the medicalization of the bodies of women who can afford the expensive drugs and procedures, something I have seen discussed well in this meeting, comes from the same logic that denies life saving drugs to those who cannot afford to pay.
War, militarization and fundamentalisms are not distinct from the economic crisis. Wars have become police actions against leaders, nations or groups that would challenge the expropriation and concentration of wealth. But wars and intimate violence are never only about the free flow of goods and capital, it is also about how women must behave. Let us not be fooled by the rhetoric that those who would liberate us from our usual despots because these puppets can no longer to serve capitalism effectively, will also protect women’s rights—as if our sisters from advanced capitalist economies were so liberated. We cannot throw off one set of dictators for a set of liberators who will instill the same norms for women’s being. If real democracy is to be had it must be radicalized to extend to freedom for women as well.
Similarly do not let the urgent need to protect our environment blind us to the fact that it is not the world’s majority poor who are the main polluters. The solution cannot be to lessen the population of a country by imposing sanctions on women’s fertility.
But I do not wish to make a list of huge tasks addressed to some anonymous group called “us”. Rather I would like us also to think how easy it is to work on all these issues because we are already in resistance. The movement for sexual rights and freedoms is everywhere. We can begin by refusing the identities that oppression wishes to impose– “us”, “other” and “others”.
There is after all no need to submit our political actions to any unifying principle or hierarchy. As if our desires and our creativity have not always been polymorphous and unregimented. To ask a any woman to prioritize only this struggle or that is to say a woman is a good Muslim when she fights prejudice against Islam but chastise her when she criticizes the fundamentalists in her religion. Or it is asking a woman to be solely a lesbian and fight against heterosexism while denying that she is also a worker fighting against contractualization. We cannot fall into the these dichotomies.
In the Philippines, the Catholic spokespersons accuse us of going against Philippine culture and identity when we refuse Catholic norms for sexuality. Our response has been to insist that those among us who are not Catholic, and/or do not subscribe to their views on sex, must have equal citizenship rights and not be forced to live under their norms. To put it succinctly, I am a feminist and a freethinker and very much a Filipina. All women, as citizens, have a right to participate in social institutions and culture so that they may work to change the patriarchal norms embedded within them.
Second, we need not submit to any geographical hierarchies of struggle. Let me appeal to you that the local struggle in the Philippines may be as important as larger regional and international struggles. Our struggle in the Philippines is important because we are one of the last bastions of Catholic fundamentalism in the old colonies. Here, the local is global. Similarly, the struggle of Dr. Agnes Gereb, imprisoned in Hungary for providing home births is of equal importance–as are a thousand other individual struggles.
At the same time I would not make boycotting or attending UN activities a litmus test for our alliances. As we go to the UN for the review of the ICPD for example, my question is whether those who go will speak of all our struggles. My question is whether those who will go to the UN will still do so out of a sense of joyous struggle rather than gloomy obligation. Because, as we grapple with the bureaucratization and isolation of the UN, we shall see how the global can be extremely parochial. Cairo and Beijing are not supposed to be the maximum, they are supposed to be the minimum. And we cannot forget what was not won in Cairo but knew we wanted. Sexual rights are not a matter to be compromised this time around.
Whereas the enemy prefers us to think of homogeneous and stable identities and institutions, we are actually a heterogeneous and nomadic movement. Whereas the enemy would divide the world into distinct arenas of struggle, we make the linkages, the confluences and the synergies. This is not a way of saying we must respect the diversity in the women’s movement, as if diversity was a difficult but unavoidable condition. I am saying that it is only through diversity that we subvert the sterile homogeneity of fundamentalist prescriptions.
Lastly, we must trust our immense power to create what is positive. The first-ever IWHM did not speak of rights; it spoke of self-help, the capacity of women to help themselves. Indeed, the regimes of power and control that envelope us survive only on our strength. This is why they lock us in their death embrace. As the world stands on the edge of increasing misery we must counter-pose a new regime of life enhancement for all the world’s population. Universal health care, jobs for all, housing, clean water, food, security — these are not mere words, they are attainable social projects.
Thank you and good morning.