How bitter herbs and botched abortions kill three women a day in the Philippines

In a country where more than 65% of women dont employ contraceptives and terminating pregnancy is illegal, torturous practices are often the only option

Outside the gates of Manilas Quiapo church, deals are being done. Bitter herbs and abortion drug are traded illegally.

Next to an enforcing statue depicting a foetus clasped in the hands of Christ, stalls offer an array of rosary beadings, amulets, mangoes and songbirds. Here, the abortion pill misoprostol is on sale for merely$ 5( 3.90 ), as well as the herb pamparegla, who are capable of induce menstruation and end pregnancy. All this goes on in the shadows of the largest Catholic church in Manila.

The irony is not lost on women rights activists who want legal access to abortion.

Marevic Parcon has been called an abortion cheerleader. Its no understatement. In a country with an outright forbid on processes and conservative positions on contraception, she is defiant in the face of criticism.

I mean, why not? Is it shameful? At the end of the day abortion is about human rights, she says. No matter how much they deny the existence of abortion in the country, its happening under their noses.

Parcon is programme coordinator at the Womens Global Network for Reproductive Rights( WGNRR ). If you are for womens rights, it is inevitable to talk about sexual and reproductive health and rights. And you cannot talking here sexual and reproductive health without talking about abortion rights.

Her positions dont go down well in a country where more than 80% of the population are Catholic and the church holds tremendous sway.

Such conservative stances maintained an act awarding universal access to family planning at bay for 14 years.

More than 65% of women dont use modern contraceptives, and maternal mortality rates are still high in the Philippines, standing at 114 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2015.

It was the efforts of women like Parcon that eventually helped drive the law over the line. The Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act also referred to as RH law was eventually passed in 2012.

This whole culture of patriarchy controls womens bodies. Women should be able to exert their own sexuality and they should be able to enjoy sex, tells Parcon, who has been on the frontline of womens rights activism for more than 20 years.

Although its against the law to aim a pregnancy in the Philippines, an estimated 610,000 abortions take place every year.

Its an open secret that methods are available, albeit unsafe ones.

As well as the herbs and medicines on offer at Quiapo, women who want to end unplanned pregnancies have their stomachs massaged hard every day for a week, in the hope of inducing abortion.

It is horrific. It is tantamount to torture, tells Parcon. Unsafe abortion is torturous to females, especially the massage kind, because it is so painful.

Others resort to barbaric methods such as inserting barbecue sticks or coathangers into their womb, or hurling themselves down the stairs. Three girls die every day from post-abortion complications in the Philippines.

The job of campaigning for womens reproductive health and rights there is tough. But its about to get tougher. Although the work of Parcons organisation, WGNRR, is not funded by the US, Donald Trumps decision to reinstate the Mexico City policy, also known as the global gag rule, will bolster her opponents.

The gag rule forbiddings foreign aid to international healthcare providers who discuss abortion or advocate abortion rights.

It will definitely make it more difficult for any reproductive health NGO, tells Parcon.

When you talk about reproductive health you will always touch on abortion. The global gag rule says that even the mere mention of abortion is not allowed. It is a challenge a big, big challenge. But its not something we should be afraid of.

On paper the Philippines looks like its making progress on uphold womens rights. In 2009 the Magna Carta of Women was introduced, promising to eliminate discrimination against women by recognising, protecting, fulfilling and promoting the rights of Filipino females. The country has also ratified the Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against girls( Cedaw ).

But the fight over the introduction of the reproductive health statute clearly showed that the country still has a long way to go.

Everything was reduced to the debate of whether or not contraception was[ causing abortion][ but] how are you able enjoy life if you have 12 kids? asks Parcon.

There are other impediments ahead: the supplying of contraceptives is poor, and legal challenges from religion groups are blocking distribution of the contraceptive implant.

But Parcon remains positive.

My hope is that one day Filippino females can say abortion and that theres no disgrace in the word. Before, we couldnt even have this conversation. But right now we are having it, so there is hope.

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