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Reproductive Health and Gender Equality

When it comes to abortion and contraception, we are bombarded with diverging opinions and value judgments. Gender stereotypes – regarding the role of men and women – can be found in many of these opinions, most often preventing the bridging of the gap between the various groups debating the subject and finding beneficial solutions, which could later on become strategies in public policies.

A.L.E.G. believes that since pregnancy involves a man and a woman, solutions proposed in the field of reproductive health and rights (SRHR) have to be based on the principles of gender equality, whether we are talking about decreasing the number of teen pregnancies, of abortions, maternal deaths, or about public information and education campaigns, if we are to have real positive effects. This is why the United Nations Development Programme links human development to gender equality, and takes the maternal death rate and the number of teen pregnancies into account when calculating the gender inequality index. We can find serious problems regarding reproductive health in those countries where the gender inequality is high. (See http://hdr.undp.org/en/data)

We are assessing below a series of prejudices and myths regarding reproductive health and rights, and propose solutions from a gender perspective.

Myth: the woman is to blame for an unwanted pregnancy

Gender critique: Responsibility for a pregnancy is shared between man and woman, and therefore the woman cannot be the only one to blame for an unwanted pregnancy. The man continues to be in most cultures the one initiating the intercourse. So, why do we tend to focus on the woman and exclude the man when it comes to responsibility for a pregnancy and preventing an unwanted pregnancy?

Why do we only condemn “evil mothers” who abandon their children in the hospital, before even asking where the father is and what he did to prevent the situation? Why would a child’s birth certificate have a father’s name entry if the woman is the only one responsible for a pregnancy? Isn’t that a double standard? Does the father get to reap rewards only when everything works according to plan? We claim to live in a modern state, we have a law regarding equal opportunities between women and men and it’s about time we took it into account. When analyzing the high number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions, blaming the woman/mother and exempting the man from responsibility for a pregnancy is part of the problem, not the solution.

Solution: make both partners responsible in all media and educational contents related to pregnancy

Myth: a nation’s prosperity depends on birth rates

Gender critique: In 2013, the Romanian president criticized women, stating that the country’s birth rates dropped severely because of women’s emancipation and that Romania was facing economic problems because of irresponsible women. First and foremost, it has to be said that birth rates did not drop dramatically in the last decades – according to statistics, the birth rate remained constant since 1990, even if overall, the number of births is lower than during the communist era. Anyway, a numerous population does not ensure economic prosperity. There are many poor states in the world which have high birth rates, but also face infant mortality, maternal deaths, and high migration rates, as people choose to work abroad because of lack of decent living conditions inside the country. Prosperity is not only measured from the point of view of quantity, but also of quality.  As the study occasioned by the reviewing process ICPD+20 (ICPD – International Conference for Population Development) showed, investment in health and education are at least as important in order to ensure a prosperous society. Quick solutions trying to force an increase in birth rates failed: both Decree 77 banning abortion in the communist period and the attempts to increase childcare allowance after the Revolution proved to produce harmful impacts (maternal deaths, children born with disability, an increase in the number of people who have no or low income, an increase in the number of abandoned children).

How will I raise the child? What are the risks of birth? Who will help me raise the child? What kind of life will my child have? These are some of the main questions we, “modern” women tend to ask ourselves. And we will not be encouraged to become mothers unless we have decent incomes, access to decent medical conditions for birth, solutions for childcare and unless we trust the future perspectives of the state in which we give birth to a child. Any person, man or woman, needs to feel that his/her life is somewhat predictable from the professional, financial and political points of view in order to make the decision of becoming a parent. In order to become a parent, you have to at least be able to envision a future for your child. Another factor supporting the decision of becoming a mother has to do with the fair/equal division of responsibilities regarding family life.

So we would argue that poverty, corruption, poor health services and overall distrust in public policies are responsible for low birth rates in Romania, rather than women’s emancipation

Solution: Multi-sectorial programs approaching both the labor market and incomes, access to decent medical care and education and family life free from abuse and violence are needed in order to encourage women to have children.

Myth: organizations advocating for reproductive rights promote abortion

Gender critique: for those who lived during the time of the “children of the decree”[1] (or those who have seen Florin Iepan’s film), it is very clear that abortion, especially when done in precarious conditions, represents a major risk to women’s health. Ceaușescu’s Decree 77 did not put an end to abortion: it only moved abortions to the black market, which led to the death of over 10000 women and the birth of thousands of impaired children because of failed attempts to end pregnancies. The organizations advocating for reproductive rights and health want to avoid that history repeats itself. However, we do not promote and praise abortion; we promote the right to information and access of men and women to modern and safe means to prevent unwanted pregnancies. However, since society is not yet so advanced as to be able to prevent any unwanted pregnancy, we are aware that abortion will continue to practiced, whether we agree or not. Therefore, abortion has to be a legal medical procedure which can be performed safely. Sex education is the main method through which we can decrease the number of abortions, as the two partners will know how to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Similarly, through sex education we can also efficiently reduce teen pregnancies jeopardizing girls’ future physical and professional development. The problem is that in Romania there are no programs subsidizing contraceptive means, nor sex education.

Solution: Sex education should be compulsory in schools starting in secondary school and all the way through high school. Sex education classes should be held by trained staff and rely on recent scientific information in order to cultivate healthy and responsible behaviors which lead to saving subsequent higher costs in society. The purpose of sex education classes is that girls and boys graduate school understanding how their own bodies work, how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted disease (including HIV/AIDS)  or unwanted pregnancies, what consensual sex means and how to avoid abuse (including sex trafficking risk circumstances) or how to build a non-violent, balances relationship. A society of young men and women who know their bodies, as well as their personal value beyond the body will save us a lot of future trouble.

 

Myth: only uneducated and selfish women turn to abortion

Gender critique: In the absence of contraceptive means, women of all ages and from all social classes turned to abortion, from celebrities to simple women. Florin Iepan’s film “Decrețeii”  offers first-person testimonials on this reality, from the communist regime.

Nowadays, many women still turn to abortion because they don’t know or can’t afford low risk contraceptive means, or because, despite using them, they got pregnant and cannot take on having a baby at the moment. This either because they are not in a steady relationship, don’t want children, don’t have the necessary resources (financial and/or moral) to raise them or because they already have the desired number of children. There are countless reasons and we don’t claim to be able to cover them here. Important is that we do not blame them because we don’t know whether ruining the life of a born child (through abandonment, neglect, abuse, being raised without of love etc.) can be considered less serious than an abortion. We believe that the world will be a better place when men and women will be encouraged to become parents when they are prepared, rather as an obligation. As the countless cases of child abuse and family violence prove, there are too many children who suffer because of their parents, and we all pay the price.

Solution: sex education in order to prevent an unwanted pregnancy, as well as removing social stigma around the right to choose whether to become a parent or not

 

Myth: sex education encourage young people to become sexually active at an early age

Gender critique: Wherever you try to talk about the necessity of sex education, somebody will step in worried that it will determine children/young people to become sexually active very early on. Such an attitude only proves lack of real communication with young people and the lack of knowledge regarding human sexuality. The age that young people become sexually active is rather related to the parental model, their group of friends, their partner and overall messages about sexuality in society. Specialist studies ascertain that, with every generation, the age when young people begin their sex lives drops, but that it is linked to other biologic changes which also happen sooner (the beginning of adolescence). The age when young people become sexually active with a partner should not be the main cause for concern. What is important is that the relationship be based on love and real feelings between young people of similar age, a consensual relationship, free of violence, exploitation, deceit or risk of disease. Sexuality is a normal fact of life; it is important for us to understand it as such and know how to prevent any risk situation. Young people start building an idea about sexuality and love very early on, based on what they see, hear and feel occurring between their own parents. Another information channel on sexuality is mass-media, and most of the times messages promoted on TV or in music create confusion and anxiety, especially among preadolescents.

Solution: sex education taught by trained personnel and focused on building responsible attitudes and behaviors will lead to young people being able to avoid unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted disease, sexual abuse etc. when they become sexually active.



[1] N. TR. The phrase refers to Romanians born in the 1960s and 1970s, shortly after the communist regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu issued Decree 770, aimed at the creation of a new and large Romanian population by restricting abortion and contraception.