Archive for June 19th, 2008

Today, June 19th 2008, Burma’s democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, celebrates her 63rd birthday. She will spend her birthday alone, under house arrest.

She is now in her 13th year of detention. She isn’t allowed to see family or friends as all visitors are banned. Her phone line is cut and her post is intercepted.

Join the global campaign to free Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners in Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi is now serving her third term of house arrest. She was arrested on 30 May, 2003 after the regime’s militia attacked her convoy and killed up to 100 of her supporters.

Take action now to help free Aung San Suu Kyi.

A biography of Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced Ong San Soo Chee), Burma’s pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate, symbolises the struggle of Burma’s people to be free.

She was born on June 19th, 1945 to Burma’s independence hero, Aung San, who was assassinated when she was only two years old.

Aung San Suu Kyi was educated in Burma, India, and the United Kingdom. While studying at Oxford University, she met Michael Aris, a Tibet scholar who she married in 1972. They had two sons, Alexander and Kim. On March 27 1999, while Aung San Suu Kyi was in Burma, Michael Aris died of cancer in London. He had petitioned the Burmese authorities to allow him to visit Suu Kyi one last time, but they had rejected his request. He had not seen her since a Christmas visit in 1995. The government always urged Suu Kyi to join her family abroad, but she knew that she would not be allowed to return.

Aung San Suu Kyi had returned to Burma in 1988 to nurse her dying mother and was immediately plunged into the country’s nationwide democracy uprising. Joining the newly-formed National League for Democracy (NLD), Suu Kyi gave numerous speeches calling for freedom and democracy. The military regime responded to the uprising with brute force, killing up to 5,000 demonstrators. Unable to maintain its grip on power, the regime was forced to call a general election in 1990.

As Aung San Suu Kyi began to campaign for the NLD, she and many others were detained by the regime. Despite being held under house arrest, the NLD went on to win a staggering 82% of the seats in parliament. The regime never recognized the results of the election.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been in and out of arrest ever since. She was held under house arrest from 1989-1995, and again from 2000-2002. She was again arrested in May 2003 after the Depayin massacre, during which up to 100 of her supporters were beaten to death by the regime’s militia. Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest in Rangoon. Her phone line has been cut, her post is intercepted and National League for Democracy volunteers providing security at her compound were removed in December 2004.

She has won numerous international awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize, the Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament and the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom. She has called on people around the world to join the struggle for freedom in Burma, saying “Please use your liberty to promote ours”.

Full chronology at

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“African women, in globalization process, encounter three major challenges: poor access to information, little use of technology and health complications fueled by many diseases and economic disadvantages” said Luisa Dias Diogo, the first woman prime minister of Mozambique.

“First of all, it (the challenge) is access to communication, information and knowledge,” the prime minister, who is attending the 18th Global Summit of Women held here and was awarded Global Women’s Leadership Award by the summit on Friday, said.

She noted that with poor or without access to information, African women are unprepared to respond to opportunities and challenges posed by globalization, failing to take advantage of it.

African women need the same tools as their peers in other continents to perform their tasks together, and compete with each other, she said.

Another challenge, which is closely related to information and knowledge, is the use of technology. “You can’t use technology if you are uneducated. If you don’t use technology in everything you do, you do in more time than others,” Diogo said.

Lower productivity means African women working in all sectors are “always one step back” from others. “Technology gives you tools to run faster than others,” she said.

The third challenge is consequences of diseases, plus local situations, which make African women weaker. “African women have to face many diseases.. In Africa, the level of HIV/AIDS is very high,” the Mozambican prime minister said.

Women in other parts of the world do not have to care too much about common diseases, even HIV/AIDS because they have abundant resources like sufficient supplies of anti-retroviral drugs or follow-up treatment. For a number of African women, even pregnancy and childbirth is a problem, she said.

However, Africa has some comparative advantages, including more natural resources and younger population which mean people are more active, enthusiastic, and ready to take more risks and work faster, she noted.

With greater access to knowledge-based resources, “I think African women have more opportunities to perform in globalization,” the prime minister said, noting that her country’s illiteracy rate was around 52 percent in 2007, down from over 90 percent in 1975, and its gross domestic product is nine billion U.S. dollars currently, up from three billion dollars some years ago.

Women in Africa in general and in Mozambique in particular are playing an increasingly bigger role in various spheres, including political arena and economic development, especially poverty reduction.

“The role of women in Africa in fighting against poverty is very important, very very important because she is doing the job, no doubt. She works in the most important area, that is agriculture,” the prime minister said.

The women also play an important part in families, core units in African societies which are often affected by conflicts and such natural disasters as flood and earthquakes. After families and nations are hit by the incidents, “women have the role to bring family again together in order to reunite the country,” she said.

“Women (in Mozambique) are performing very well in informal sector, no doubt. They are leading the informal sector. Some of them are moving from informal sector to formal one… We need to stimulate and promote the assignment (women taking leadership in big companies).”

Mozambican women have also been doing very well in politics, much better than in economic area, she stated, noting that 37 percent of parliament members are women, and that out of 29 cabinet members, 11 are women, including seven ministers and four deputy ministers in charge of important fields.

According to the prime minister, good women leaders should, besides necessary characters like men, “study every time,” “have to be always alert,” and work harder to overcome prejudice against women, and more importantly, help other women, really taking care of them.

“Work hard and hard.. The fruit will come later, don’t try to get the fruit immediately because you can get lost.”

The Mozambican prime minister also advised women leaders, especially African ones to act in a very natural manner. “Try to be natural, first of all. Don’t imitate men… If you like to smile, just smile. It is a powerful tool, use it!”

To balance work and family, women should seek support, from other family members, especially their husbands, and fully utilize their limited time to deal with domestic matters, she said, noting that success is “when you see results and feel happy with the results.”

“Success means realization of what you think and the best things you could do for you, for your family and for the country,” she said, adding that “do what she wishes to do and do it well” if a woman wants to be happy and successful.

The ongoing 18th Global Summit of Women (GSW) granted Global Women’s Leadership Award to Mozambique prime minister, Vietnam’s Women’s Leadership Award to a former vice state president, and Entrepreneurship awards to a Japanese businessman, and a Vietnamese woman.

Luisa Dias Diogo, the first woman prime minister of Mozambique, is well-known for her endless efforts to accelerate poverty reduction, ensure public health, reach gender equality, and foster women’s empowerment. She has urged African health ministers to offer free reproductive and sexual health services throughout Africa, in a move to slash infant and maternal mortality, and curb the spread of HIV and AIDS.

Mozambique is striving to reach gender equality and provide better education for girls, Diogo said after receiving the award, noting that 26 percent of her country’s cabinet members are women.

Truong My Hoa, who used to be vice state president and vice chairwoman of the National Assembly of Vietnam, the country’s top legislature, and chairwoman of the Vietnam’s Women Union, got Vietnam’s Women’s Leadership Award.

At the ceremony, Hoa called on women around the globe to consolidate unity for women liberalization cause, and lessen impacts of wars, conflicts, ignorance, poverty and natural disasters.

The GSW has, for the first time in its 18-year history, granted Entrepreneurship Award to a man, Mitsumasa Kawai, president of Japan’s General Engineering Co. Ltd, for his continuous support for business start-up of women in his country, China and Vietnam.

Another award was given to Tran Thi Thuy, vice president of the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry and chairwoman of Vietnam’ s Women Entrepreneurs Council.

The GSW, held in Vietnam for the first time on June 5-7 with the participation of over 900 business women, professional and government leaders from 70 economies, is focusing on two major factors: dynamic Asia-Pacific economies led by China and India, and the important role of women.

The Palestinian Women Writers Conference is underway for three days at Bethlehem University. The guest that most were hoping to see was Sahar Khalifa. Born in the northern West Bank’s Nablus in 1941, she has published six novels and is considered one of Palestine’s foremost writers. She is widely acclaimed for being the first feminist Palestinian writer and her works are translated second only to the poetry of the sublime Mahmoud Darwish.

She spoke to the audience in a manner described as “beautiful.” Her literary creativity was the most commented upon by those in the crowds. She said that despite some “propaganda to the contrary,” Palestinian women are still reeling in inequality, still searching for the dawn of awakening. She was referring to women in all sectors, including politics, activism, writers and scholars. Khalifa said that the process of liberation was, and has been, underway, but has a long way to go.

She has won the prestigious Naguib Mahfouz Prize, but it was 1975’s “Wild Thorns” that made her truly famous. However, Khalifa’s 1974 “We are Not Your Slave Girls Anymore” was turned into a television series in 1977. She was also the recipient of the Fulbright in 1980, the award that Gaza students are currently fighting the Israeli government to be able to accept. During her Fulbright period she received a MA from Chapel Hill, and later, in 1988, a PhD from Iowa.

The former Minister of Women in the Palestinian Authority and the Director of the Center for Palestinian Women for Research and Documentation, Zahira Kamal, spoke of women’s defiance. She also noted Khalifa’s creativity and that of all Palestinian women.

“We are in more need than ever now of women writers who have mastered the art of expressing our feelings and sentiments about the issues facing our nation.”

The decision by Turkey’s Constitutional Court to cancel constitutional amendments that would have opened the way for women to wear a headscarf in universities is a blow to freedom of religion and other fundamental rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The court ruled on June 5 that the Turkish parliament had violated the constitutionally enshrined principle of secularism when it passed amendments to lift the headscarf ban on university campuses. The amendments were adopted by an overwhelming majority of parliament. “This decision means that women who choose to wear a headscarf in Turkey will be forced to choose between their religion and their education,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This is a truly disappointing decision and does not bode well for the reform process.”

In early February 2008, the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), supported by the opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP), passed changes to the constitution concerning the principle of equality and the right to education. The headscarf is not specifically mentioned in either of these amendments, but the parliament’s intention was to end its ban in universities.

The Constitutional Court’s decision to annul these amendments will have a dire impact on women university students who wish to wear a headscarf for reasons of conscience and as an expression of their Muslim faith. Human Rights Watch has long supported lifting the current restrictions on headscarves in university on the grounds that the prohibition is an unwarranted infringement on the right to religious practice. Moreover, this restriction of dress, which only applies to women, is discriminatory and violates their right to education, freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and privacy.

In a 2004 report, “Memorandum to the Turkish Government on Human Rights Watch’s Concerns with Regard to Academic Freedom in Higher Education, and Access to Higher Education for Women who Wear the Headscarf “, Human Rights Watch urged the government to lift the headscarf ban as part of a broader strategy for remedying shortcomings in the protection of women and improving their access to education and employment. A similar approach was suggested by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

“The failed attempt by the AKP government to change the constitution on the headscarf issue only highlights its failure to redraft the constitution in its entirety, despite having promised to do so when it was re-elected,” Cartner said. “The 1982 constitution fails to protect human rights and should have been done away with already.”

The current constitution was drawn up in 1982 under the then-military regime brought to power by the September 12, 1980 military coup. This constitution severely restricts the fundamental freedoms and human rights enshrined in Turkey’s international human rights obligations, including limitations on freedom of expression, which have had a particularly negative impact on Turkey’s minorities.

After being re-elected with 47 percent of the vote in the July 2007 general election, the government promised to revise the 1982 Constitution entirely. However, instead of producing a new draft constitution that would address the broad range of rights concerns, the government controversially promoted only the amendments to lift the headscarf ban that prompted the June 5 Constitutional Court decision.

Background The constitutional changes were drawn up by the government with the support of the opposition MHP on January 29, 2008 and passed by the Turkish Parliament on February 6 and 9. On February 22, President Abdullah G�l approved the changes. In response, the opposition CHP (Republican People’s Party) and the DSP (Democratic Left Party) applied to the Constitutional Court for the annulment of these changes on the grounds that they violated the principle of secularism in Article 2 of the Constitution.

On May 17, Osman Can, the rapporteur appointed by the Constitutional Court, submitted a report to the court advising that the case should be dismissed on the grounds that the court’s authority could not extend to monitoring substantive constitutional changes introduced by a parliament. Osman Can’s report, which had no binding power on the court, focused on the limitations on the court’s powers and argued on the basis of the court’s previous decisions and the 1982 Constitution that its focus should be on monitoring constitutional reforms on a procedural basis.

Italy’s new conservative government is mulling proposals to stem rampant street prostitution, including “red light” districts, legalising brothels and life in jail for pimps.

Italians have been alarmed recently at the growing number of prostitutes, many of them illegal foreigners from Eastern Europe or Africa, who seek drive-by clients on the streets of most cities, even in daylight.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni made a surprising proposal at the weekend, saying he was in favour of setting up officially sanctioned red light districts.

“This would guarantee health controls and protect citizens,” he said in a newspaper interview. But he acknowledged that such a move would be complex in a Catholic country like Italy and would need “ample reflection and agreement”.

According to some estimates there are between 70,000 and 100,000 prostitutes in Italy. More than half are foreigners and 65 percent work on the streets.

An amendment to an immigration package due to be discussed this week by the government would allow authorities to expel foreign prostitutes on security grounds or arrest them if they refused to leave the country.

Exchanging money for sex is not illegal in Italy but coercion or exploitation of prostitution is.

“Prostitution has a ripple effect on the security of Italian families and the condition of public places,” said Justice Minister Angelino Alfano.

The centre-left opposition has balked at the proposals, saying the law should crack down on those who traffic in humans, exploit prostitutes and reduce them to conditions of slavery.

Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in an interview on Sunday that existing laws against “exploitation of prostitution” were not enough to solve the problem.

“We must apply norms which punish slavery with life sentences,” he told the Turin newspaper La Stampa.

Some politicians have also suggested the return of state-regulated brothels, which were legal in Italy until 1958, when they were closed after a 10-year legal battle by a woman senator named Lina Merlin. In 1958 there were 700 such brothels.

Known as “Closed Houses” or “Houses of Tolerance,” they have served as background for a number of classic movies over the years, including the 1964 “Matrimony Italian Style,” starring Sophia Loren, which was nominated for two Oscars.

Frattini said he was not sure if Italian public opinion would be in favour of red light districts or controlled brothels.

An unscientific poll by Sky Italia television showed that more than 80 percent of callers favoured limiting prostitution to red light districts.

“It is a question of customs. Certainly they (red light districts) exist in (other parts of) Europe and there prostitutes are not slaves,” Frattini said.

He added that prevention of sexually transmitted diseases was “effectively better” in countries with controlled brothels.

As the race for European football supremacy opens in Austria and Switzerland, there will be some people walking the streets who don’t want to be there: prostitutes forced into service. With an estimated two million people a year, mostly women and even children, in near-human slavery and made to work as prostitutes, Members of the European Parliament – as they did during the 2006 World Cup of football in Germany – are again urging patrons not to support the sex industry and to exploit its victims.

“Trafficking in women is a Europe-wide crime and an extraordinarily cruel form of modern slavery,” said MEP Christa Prets of Austria. “There has to be a distinction between prostitution and forced prostitution. The latter is a crime against humanity and has to be punished.” Two years ago, to coincide with International Women’s Day and ahead of the World Cup in Germany the Women’s Rights Committee launched the “Red Card to forced prostitution” campaign and have renewed it for the European championships. MEP Liz Lynne of the United Kingdom has urged football fans traveling to Euro 2008 to watch out for possible cases of human trafficking for sexual exploitation, and tell the Swiss and Austrian authorities if they suspect anything. It is estimated that tens of thousands of women, children and some men are smuggled into the EU each year and then forced into prostitution. In Switzerland the figure is thought to be in the thousands. It is thought that football fans traveling to Euro 2008 could boost demand for paid sex, which is legal in both the host countries, MEPs said.

Lynne, who also sits on the Human Rights Subcommittee, has often campaigned on the need to better protect the victims of trafficking. “We are not talking about prostitution, where the prostitute knows what she, or he, is doing. We’re talking about a modern slave trade where women, children and some men, have no choice whether they work as prostitutes or not, and are forced to do it against their will,” she said. “In Switzerland, which has a particularly hard policy towards illegal immigration, many victims of trafficking are criminalised and deported. Only if they are prepared to give evidence in court are they allowed to stay, but because they are the victims of abuse and exploitation, many are too terrified to do so,” she said.

She said Switzerland and Austria should sign and ratify the Council of Europe’s Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, which came into force earlier this year. Implementing this Convention will mean that safe havens have to be provided for the victims and a 30-day breathing space so that they can decide whether or not to help in their abusers’ prosecution. It also allows for renewable residence permits for victims. Sending the victims of trafficking home as criminals, as happens too often, does nothing to help, as quite often they are just re-trafficked.

“I welcome the advertising campaign which will run at the matches and hope that this will give a strong message to potential customers of these victims, as did the campaigns at the World Cup two years ago. I hope all the fans, footballers and sports associations, will help to stamp out this evil trade,” she said. The parliament’s Women’s Rights Committee has asked the European Commission what steps had being taken to prevent trafficking in women and forced prostitution since the committee’s previous campaign two years ago.

MEP Eva-Britt Svensson of Sweden denounced the fact that “Women and children are transported like merchandise within the EU and between the EU and other countries” and “are sexually abused, beaten, threatened and consumed.” What is their crime, to be doomed to such a life? “Their only crime is poverty,” she said. “We need men to engage in fighting this tragic trade. Men must not only refrain from buying sexual services themselves, they must also show other men that it is not OK to buy women’s bodies.

It is men who can reduce market demand. As long as there is demand and a market with great economic profits, the trade will continue.” MEP Ilda Figueiredo of Portugal said: “It is important to use this sporting event to remind the public that prostitution and trafficking of women for the purposes of sexual exploitation are unacceptable and it is essential that measures be taken to combat this and to support victims in all Member States.” She said that increasing inequalities, precarious work, unemployment and poverty are pushing thousands of women and young girls into prostitution and asked how the European Union intended to combat the basic causes of these serious violations of human rights for hundreds of thousands of women and young girls.

The four largest cities in the Netherlands have developed a plan to tackle domestic violence and will formally present their programme to Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin.

The programme calls for more help for the victims of domestic violence as well as help for the perpetrators.

The programme also calls for courts to be set up to deal specifically with domestic violence.

Reports of domestic violence in the four largest cities – Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague – are three times higher than the national average.

Determined to ensure that victims of domestic violence are protected by the law, the Domestic Violence Act (DVA) Secretariat is in talks with donor agencies and the Ministry of Justice and Attorney-General to establish temporary shelters for them.

The shelters will ensure that victims have a place to spend times pending the hearing of their cases.

The acting Co-ordinator of the Secretariat, Mrs. Christina Boateng-Ankamah, said this in an interview with the Times in Accra on Wednesday, on an update of the implementation of the Act.

She said there had been occasions when those abused at night had spent their nights at police stations and other places, adding that ‘this is not good as they are exposed to other health hazards’.

Mrs Boateng-Ankamah said the secretariat is also dialoguing with the Attorney-General’s Department to ensure that victims do not sit face-to-face in the court room with perpetrators because it has been established that victims, especially children, feel intimidated by their abusers in the courts and are afraid to tell the truth.

The secretariat is also lobbying the Attorney-General’s Department to possibly set days for courts to hear only cases of domestic violence.

‘We want to fast track the process because most often, these cases are heard together with other cases and the delays make some victims lose interest in the cases,’ she complained.

Asked if full implementation of the Act had started, she said the secretariat is making strides as it has begun hearing some cases and referring some to the courts.

She said it has put in place some measures to facilitate the implementation, adding that this year they plan to carry out 52 activities.

She mentioned some of the things done as the finalisation of a national plan of action , the composition of a board and the holding of meetings with its implementing agencies, including the ministries, departments and agencies and the civil society organisations.

‘We have also been organising sensitisation workshops for officials of the Ministry of Health, Ghana Health Service, Attorney-General’s Department, Judicial Service and National Commission on Civic Education, among others,’ she said.

A hotline has been set up at the Greater Accra regional office of the Domestic Violence and Victims Support Unit of the Police Service, she added, stressing that it will be replicated in the other regions.

Mrs Boateng-Ankamah said the smooth take-off of the programme has been made possible through government support but indicated that finance still remains a major problem confronting the implementation.

She hoped that the Netherlands Embassy and the United Nations systems, which are the major donor partners for the programme, will fully commit themselves to its implementation.

Domestic violence laws are going to be changed and proposals include giving police the power to issue on the spot protection orders, Justice Minister Annette King said today.

Ms King said she would bring a bill to Parliament as soon as it was ready to strengthen the Domestic Violence Act in line with recommendations in a Justice Ministry review.

The review found that while the legislation was widely supported there were three areas which needed changing: the role of the police and enforcement of protection orders, the role of the courts in domestic violence matters and the need to further protect children in Family Court matters.

Ms King said key proposals were:

* Police would be able to issue on the spot short-term protection orders;

* strengthening the penalties for breaching protection orders;

* requiring the Family Court to scrutinise more carefully applications for discharging protection orders;

* requiring criminal courts to consider making a protection order on behalf of the victim;

* improving access to programmes for respondents, protected persons and their children; and

* ensuring further consistency in the use of lawyers for children and dealing with psychological abuse.

National’s justice spokesman, Simon Power, said he supported giving police the power to issue on the spot protection orders – and it was his idea.

“Labour’s policy is a copy of National’s policy, which was announced by leader John Key on November 1 last year,” he said.

“We believe giving police the ability to issue on the spot protection orders for suspected victims of domestic violence will be very effective in putting their immediate safety first.”

Mr Power said it had taken Labour eight years to do anything about it.

Two-thirds of all pregnant women seeking abortions in one Australian state are doing so because their contraception methods failed. The study, to be published today, looked at the experiences of 3400 women who presented at a southern Adelaide clinic for abortions in the past decade.

Between July 1996, and June 2006, nearly 70 per cent of the 3434 women who presented for an abortion were using contraception.

About 36 per cent were using barrier methods such as condoms, a further 28 per cent were using hormone methods such as the pill, while 3 per cent were using natural family planning methods.

The study authors from Flinders University, Wendy Abigail, Charmaine Power and Ingrid Belan, said the findings “dispel the myth” that women use abortion as a method of contraception.

“It is often reported in the media that women are irresponsible with contraception usage and that pregnancy terminations are used as a form of contraception,” they said.

“The majority of women in this study used some form of contraception at the time of conception.”

They said more research was needed into the findings about contraception and into abortion rates generally.

“Further research is needed to explore why contraception methods are failing.

“There were no studies worldwide in the past 11 years that specifically examined trends in the characteristics of the number of first ever pregnancies which ended up in a termination, contraception choices post-operatively or referral source.”

The study, to be published today in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, also found a “significant increase” in the number of women aged 30 to 50 years having abortions.

In 1996-97, 85 women in that age group presented for abortions. That figure rose to 118 in 2005-06.

“There are currently very strong social and economic forces in society that exert pressure towards later childbearing, such as the expansion of education and increasingly competitive work situations,” the authors said.

There were no significant changes in trends in women aged 19 years and under or women aged 20 to 29.,26278,23837847-5007185,00.html

The department has reached a settlement with Marie Stopes

A settlement appears to have been reached to avert a long standing legal showdown between the Western Cape Department of Health and a private abortion clinic – Marie Stopes.

According to the Western Cape based Women’s Legal Centre, which represented the clinic in the legal battle with the department, health authorities have agreed to relax their stringent requirements for the clinic.

The clinic, which has been performing abortions across the country for years, says it was told by the provincial health department to comply with certain regulations or risk losing its licence. These included installing a state of the art operating theatre at its clinic.

The clinic says it has fully complied with the National Department’s Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act. A women’s rights lobby group, the Women’s Legal Centre, has challenged the provincial department’s demand in the Cape High Court. The group says closing down the clinic would undermine the rights of women to terminate unwanted pregnancy at the clinic of their choice. The group claims the provincial health department has backed down on its earlier demands to avert the looming legal showdown with the private clinic. However, this could not be confirmed with the provincial health authorities.

Officials have declined to comment referring inquiries to the Health MEC Pierre Uys who was not available.,2172,171113,00.html

The Women’s Legal Centre is a non-profit, independently funded law centre started by a group of women lawyers. The WLC has been established to advance women’s rights by conducting constitutional litigation and advocacy on gender issues.

Capitalising on a more favourable public opinion, an alliance of civil society organisations in Argentina presented to Congress a draft law for the legalisation of abortion in a country where illegal abortions are the main cause of maternal mortality.

On the International Day of Action for Women’s Health, which is celebrated May 28, 250 women’s and human rights groups, trade unions, political parties and personalities from the spheres of culture, science and academia delivered their initiative to the legislators.

“This is the first time that parliament has been presented with a draft law drawn up by civil society to demand the decriminalisation of abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy,” one of the initiative’s sponsors, Martha Rosenberg with the Forum for Reproductive Rights, told IPS.

The climate is more favourable today for the initiative, for different reasons. According to a national poll on public opinion on reproductive rights carried out by the Knack polling firm, the proportion of people in Argentina who believe abortion should be decriminalised grew from 28 to 46 percent before 2004 and 2006.

In that same period, the proportion of respondents who said they would accept full legalisation of abortion on demand rose from 11 to 20 percent, while the proportion of respondents who said abortion should be illegal under any circumstances shrank from 23 to 13 percent.

Under the draft law, whose authors studied abortion legislation in other countries, all women would have the right to choose before the 12th week of pregnancy whether or not to carry the baby to term and would have access to a safe abortion, free of charge, in the public health care services.

The proposed legislation would also grant the right to late-term abortion (after the 12th week of pregnancy) to rape victims, women found to be carrying a severely malformed fetus, or women whose health or life is endangered by the pregnancy. In no case would prior judicial authorisation be required, only the patient’s written consent.

In Argentina, both the woman who undergoes an abortion and the person who practices it are subject to prosecution, except in cases involving the rape of a mentally disabled or ill girl or woman, or when the mother’s health or life is put at risk by the pregnancy.

But even in these extreme cases, doctors tend to demand judicial authorisation, with the consequent delay and possible risks to the mother’s mental or physical wellbeing.

A 20-year-old mother of three died this month of jaw cancer in the northeastern province of Santa Fe. After she became pregnant, the public hospital refused her radiation therapy, to avoid endangering the fetus. An abortion was then requested and also denied by the hospital. In the end, both the mother and the newborn baby died.

Last year there were two cases that also unleashed heated public debate. In different provinces, two mentally disabled girls, one of whom was a minor, were raped and became pregnant as a result. But doctors refused to give them an abortion, and the families had to turn to the courts to obtain legal permission.

According to Health Ministry estimates, between 450,000 and 500,000 clandestine abortions are practiced every year in this country of 37 million, and the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses reports that 37 percent of pregnancies end in abortion, while 15 percent of the total involve girls under 20 years of age.

Although safe clandestine abortion services are available to those who can afford the high cost, poor women must resort to unsafe abortions practiced in unsanitary conditions. A little over one-quarter (27 percent) of maternal deaths are the result of complications from unsafe abortions, the main cause of maternal mortality and the second cause of death among women of child-bearing age.

Nevertheless, public opinion has traditionally been dead-set against abortion — resistance that seems to be yielding despite the still powerful influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Argentina.

Something similar is occurring in other Latin American countries. In Colombia, the circumstances under which abortion is legal were expanded a year ago; abortion was legalised in Mexico City in April; and authorities in Brazil have proposed putting the issue up to referendum, following the lead of Portugal, where people voted in February that parliament could legalise abortion on demand up to the 10th week of pregnancy.

“I am convinced that there is a greater openness now to debate,” Cira Candia, secretary for gender equality and opportunity in the Central de Trabajadores de Argentina trade union federation, told IPS.

“Abortion in Argentina is no longer a taboo issue,” she said. “The health minister has stated that it should be decriminalised, the media are discussing the question, and for the first time, INADI (the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism) made a presentation on the matter.”

Candia was referring to remarks by Health Minister Ginés González García, who promoted the creation of the Programme for Sexual Health and Responsible Parenthood, ordered the distribution of a guide to improve the treatment received in public hospitals by women suffering post-abortion complications, and has repeatedly said that he backs the decriminalisation of abortion.

INADI, for its part, sent Congress and regional health ministries around the country a protocol this month for health care in cases in which abortion is legal, warning doctors that if they failed to live up to the regulations, they would be committing an act of discrimination by denying due treatment.

Rosenberg said the climate today for introducing a proposed draft law is indeed more positive, because of the growing support for legalised abortion as well as the participation in the debate by a broader range of social sectors. She pointed out that human rights groups, trade unions and political parties have incorporated it in their agendas.

“We used to have the personal support of individual members of more or less well-known human rights groups. But now, for example, the presidents of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo (two of Argentina’s leading human rights organisations) have come out in favour of decriminalisation,” she said.

The activist also said the national campaign for the right to legal, safe and free abortion, which is heavily promoted by the alliance of organisations that drafted the proposed new abortion legislation, has helped spark debate on the issue every time a controversial case has appeared, such as the rapes of the two mentally disabled girls.

“Actually, there have always been cases. What’s happening now is that there is a current of opinion that seizes on the cases as indications of a serious problem of discrimination that should no longer be tolerated,” said Rosenberg.

A leading human rights group has said it is concerned for the welfare of three gay protesters who forced their way into an international conference about HIV/AIDS prevention in Uganda organised by the UN.

There has been rising tension in the country over gay and lesbian rights.

Trans people are also targeted by police and regularly subjected to abuse and harassment.

Amnesty UK’s director said that the protesters, two women and a man, may face harassment while in prison and called for their release.

“We consider these three to be prisoners of conscience, detained for their peaceful activism,” said Kate Allen.

Their protest was sparked earlier this week when the head of Uganda’s AIDS commission said that gay people are driving up the number of infections in the country, but would not be targeted with prevention work.

Kihumuro Apuuli claimed a lack of money prevents him from giving any attention or treatment to gay people.

The international meeting was organised by an international group of countries and organisation, among them the US, the World Bank, the UN.

More than a million of Uganda’s 27 million people are already HIV+.

Mr Apuuli, chairman of the Uganda AIDS Commission, said on Monday:

“Gays are one of the drivers of HIV in Uganda, but because of meagre resources we cannot direct our programmes at them at this time.”

Government officials have regularly threatened and harassed lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Ugandans.

Uganda’s penal code carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for homosexual conduct, while ‘attempts’ at carnal knowledge get a maximum of seven years of imprisonment.

Three months ago the former Archbishop of Cape Town and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu joined 120 Christian and Jewish leaders in a call to the government of Uganda to stop homophobia in the country.

United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women E-Newsletter – May 2008

Colombian Women in Spain Invest in the Well-being of their families
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Migration and remittances have positive impacts on gender equality in the Philippines
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Read the media kit

Voices from the field: How migration improves children’s education in Philippines
Read the interview

Expert Group Meeting on Tracking and Monitoring Gender Equality and HIV/AIDS in Aid Effectiveness
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Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific 2007 Shows Gender Inequality Continues at Great Cost in the Region
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Crafting Human Security in an Insecure World
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Women Have a Higher Risk of Depression than Men
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Caribbean Action Plan for Gender and Media Advocacy
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Nominations Sought for 2008 UN Human Rights Prize
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UN-INSTRAW is an Institute devoted to applied research, training and knowledge management in partnership with governments, the United Nations Agencies, civil society and academia to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment.


Article by Gloria Steinem from the April 4, 1969 issue of New York Magazine which they have reprinted this month.

Once upon a time—say, ten or even five years ago—a Liberated Woman was somebody who had sex before marriage and a job afterward. Once upon the same time, a Liberated Zone was any foreign place lucky enough to have an American army in it. Both ideas seem antiquated now, and for pretty much the same reason: Liberation isn’t exposure to the American values of Mom-and-apple-pie anymore (not even if Mom is allowed to work in an office and vote once in a while); it’s the escape from them.

For instance:

Barnard girls move quietly, unlasciviously into the men’s dorms at Columbia; a student sleep-in to protest the absence of “rational communities”—co-ed dorms like those already springing up at other universities.

Wives and mothers march around the Hudson Street alimony jail with posters announcing they don’t want alimony.

A coven of 13 members of WITCH (The Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, celebrating witches and gypsies as the first women resistance fighters) demonstrates against that bastion of white male supremacy: Wall Street. The next day, the market falls five points.

More witches and some black-veiled brides invade the Bridal Fair at Madison Square Garden. They carry signs (“Confront the Whore-makers,” “Here Comes the Bribe”), sing, shout, release white mice in the audience of would-be brides, and generally scare the living daylights out of exhibitors who are trying to market the conventional delights of bridal gowns, kitchen appliances, package-deal honeymoon trips and heart-shaped swimming pools.

At the end of the Columbia strike, the student-run Liberation School offers a course on women as an oppressed class. Discussions include the parallel myths about women and Negroes (that both have smaller brains than white men, childlike natures, natural “goodness,” limited rationality, supportive roles to white men, etc.); the paternalistic family system as prototype for capitalistic society (see Marx and Engels); the conclusion that society can’t be restructured until the relationship between the sexes is restructured. Men are kept out of the class, but it is bigger and lasts longer than any other at the school.

Redstockings, an action group in the Women’s Liberation Movement, sponsors a one-act play about abortion by the New Feminist Theatre (whose purpose it is to point out how many plays are anti-woman and how tough it is for women playwrights, directors, producers), plus two hours of personal and detailed testimony—in public—by girls who have had abortions and Tell It Like It Is, from humor through sadism. Nobody wants to reform the abortion laws; they want to repeal them. Completely.

What do women want? The above events are in no way connected to the Bloomingdale-centered, ask-not-what I-can-do-for-myself-ask-what-my-husband-can-do-for-me ladies of Manhattan, who are said by sociologists to be “liberated.” Nor do the house-bound matriarchs of Queens and the Bronx get much satisfaction out of reading about feminist escapades. On the contrary, the whole thing alienates them by being a) radical and b) young.

The women behind it, and influenced by it, usually turn out to be white, serious, well-educated girls; the same sort who have labored hard in what is loosely known as the Movement, from the Southern sit-ins of nine years ago to the current attacks on the military-industrial-educational complex. They have been jailed, beaten and Maced side-by-side with their social-activist male counterparts. (It’s wonderful to see how quickly police from Selma to Chicago get over a reluctance to hit women.) They have marched on Senate committees, Pentagon hawks, their own college presidents and the Chase Manhattan Bank. But once back in the bosom of SDS , they found themselves typing and making coffee.

“When it comes to decision-making or being taken seriously in meetings,” said one revolutionary theorist from Berkeley, “we might as well join the Young Republicans.”

Such grumbling noises were being made aloud at Movement meetings as early as five years ago. but women were ridiculed or argued down by men (as well as some “Uncle Tom” women). Eventually, they were assured, “the woman question” would come up on the list of radical priorities—as decided on by radical men. Meanwhile, more backstage work, more mimeographing, more secondary role-playing around the revolutionary cells and apartment-communes. And, to be honest, more reluctance to leave the secondary role and lose male approval.

Finally, women began to “rap” (talk, analyze, in radical-ese) about their essential second-classness, forming women’s caucuses inside the Movement in much the same way Black Power groups had done. And once together they made a lot of discoveries: that they shared more problems with women of different classes, for instance, than they did with men of their own; that they liked and respected each other (if women don’t want to work with women, as Negroes used to reject other Negroes, it’s usually because they believe the myth of their own inferiority), and that, as black militants kept explaining to white liberals, “You don’t get radicalized fighting other people’s battles.”

Next: The quiet spread of feminist groups.

At the SDS Convention in 1967, women were still saying such integrationist things as “The struggle for the liberation of women must be part of the larger fight for freedom.” Many Movement women still are. But members of groups like the Southern Student Organizing Committee and New York Radical Women (a loose coalition of various radical groups whose representatives meet once a month) withdrew to start concentrating on their own problems. They couldn’t become black or risk jail by burning their draft cards, but they could change society from the bottom up by radicalizing (engaging with basic truth) the consciousness of women; by going into the streets on such women’s issues as abortion, free childcare centers, and a final break with the 19th-century definition of females as sex objects whose main function is to service men and their children.

All this happened not so much by organization as contagion. What has come to be known in the last two years or so as the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) is no more pin-downable than the Black Power Movement; maybe less so, because white groups tend to be less structured, more skittish about leadership than black ones. Nonetheless, when the WLM had its first national conference last fall, women from 20 states and Canada showed up on a month’s notice. A newsletter, Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement, is published in Chicago. WLM-minded groups are springing up on dozens of campuses where they add special student concerns to their activities: professors who assume women aren’t “serious” about careers; advisers who pressure girls toward marriage or traditionally feminine jobs (would-be Negro doctors are told to be veterinarians, would-be women doctors are told to be nurses), and faculties or administrations where few or no women are honored in authority.

In New York, WITCH is probably the most colorful outcropping of the WLM. It got started when women supporters of men being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee decided that a witch-hunt should have witches, and dressed up for HUAC hearings accordingly. (In the words of WITCH, “We are WITCH. We are WOMAN. We are LIBERATION. WE are WE. The hidden history of women’s liberation began with witches and gypsies . . . the oldest guerrillas and resistance fighters, the first practicing abortionists and distributors of contraceptive herbs. WITCH implies the destruction of passivity, consumerism and commodity fetishism . . . the routine of daily life is the theatre of struggle.”) It was the Witch Guerrilla Theatre that hexed Wall Street, and later, as part of a technique called “violating the reality structure,” it “freaked out at a Wellesley Alumnae Fund-raising Bridge Party.”

Quieter groups seem to be forming everywhere, from the New Women in Manhattan to The Feminists in Oceanside. Redstockings, the most publically active at the moment, has recapitulated the whole WLM in its short history. Women activists rebelled against their subordinate position, but still tried to work within the Movement until a peace-and-liberation protest at Nixon’s Inaugural, where girls spoke and were booed by their own fellow radicals. After that moment of truth, they reformed as part of “an independent revolutionary movement, potentially representing half the population. We intend to make our own analysis of the system . . . Although we may cooperate with radical men on matters of common concern . . . our demand for freedom involves not only the overthrow of capitalism, but the destruction of the patriarchal system.”

If all this sounds far-out, Utopian, elitist, unnecessary or otherwise unlikely to be the next big thing in revolutions, consider two facts: 1) the WLM is growing so rapidly that even its most cheerful proselytizers are surprised, spreading not only along the infra-structure of the existing co-ed Movement, but into a political territory where anti-Vietnam petitions have rarely been seen; and 2) there are a couple of mass movements, from highly organized through just restless, that the WLM might merge with, becoming sort of a revolutionary vanguard.

The older, middle-class women come first, the ones who tried hard to play subordinate roles in the suburbs according to the post-war-baby-boom-women’s magazine idyll but found Something Missing. Betty Friedan, who explained their plight clearly and compassionately in The Feminine Mystique, named that Something: rewarding work. But when these women went out to find jobs, they found a lot of home-truths instead.

For instance, there is hardly a hierarchy in the country—business, union, government, educational, religious, whatever—that doesn’t discriminate against women above the secretarial level. Women with some college education earn less than men who get as far as the eighth grade. The median income of white women employed full time is less than that of white men and Negro men. The gap between women’s pay and men’s pay gets greater every year, even though the number of women in the labor force increases (they are now a third of all workers). Forty-three states have “protection legislation” limiting the hours and place a woman can work; legislation that is, as Governor Rockefeller admitted last year, “more often protective of men.” The subtler, psychological punishments for stepping out of woman’s traditional “service” role are considerable. (Being called “unfeminine,” “a bad mother” or “a castrating woman,” to name a traditional few.) And, to top it all off, the problem of servants or child care often proves insurmountable after others are solved.

Next: Can the WLM feel solidarity with poor women of all colors?

In short, women’s opportunities expanded greatly for about 15 years after they won the vote in 1920 (just as Negroes had more freedom during Reconstruction, before Jim Crow laws took over where slavery had left off), but they have been getting more limited ever since.

The middle-class, educated and disillusioned group gets larger with each college graduation. National Organization for Women (NOW)—founded in 1966 by Betty Friedan, among others, “to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men” — is a very effective voice of this group, concentrating on such reforms as getting irrelevant sex-designations out of Help Wanted ads and implementing Equal Employment Opportunity laws.

If the WLM can feel solidarity with the hated middle class, and vice versa, then an alliance with the second mass movement—poor women of all colors—should be no problem. They are already organized around welfare problems, free daycare centers, for mothers who must work, and food prices. For them, equal pay, unequal training and sex discrimination for jobs (not to mention the woman-punishing rules of welfare) exact a daily price: Of all the families living below the poverty level, 40 per cent are headed by women.

A lot of middle-class and radical-intellectual women are already working with the poor on common problems, but viewing them as social. If the “consciousness-raising” programs of the WLM work, they’ll see them as rallying points for women qua women. And that might forge the final revolutionary link. Rumblings are already being heard inside the Democratic party in New York. It’s the women who staff and win elections, and they may finally balk at working for only men—not very qualified men at that—in the mayoral primary.

There is plenty of opposition to this kind of thinking, from women as well as men. Having one’s traditional role questioned is not a very comfortable experience; perhaps especially for women, who have been able to remain children, and to benefit from work they did not and could not do. Marriage wouldn’t go straight down the drain, as traditionalists keep predicting. Women’s liberation might just hurry up some sort of companionate marriage that seems to be developing anyway.

But there is bound to be a time of, as social anthropologist Lionel Tiger puts it, “increased personal acrimony,” even if the revolution fails and women go right back to darning socks. (Masculinity doesn’t depend on the subservience of others, but it will take us a while to find that out.) It might be helpful to men—and good for women’s liberation—if they just keep repeating key phrases like, “No more guilt, No more alimony, Fewer boring women, Fewer bitchy women, No more tyrants with all human ambition confined to the home, No more ‘Jewish mothers’ transferring ambition to children, No more women trying to be masculine because it’s a Man’s World . . .” (and maybe one more round of “No more alimony”) until the acrimony has stopped.

Because the idea is, in the long run, that women’s liberation will be men’s liberation, too.

As the feminist health manual goes global, translating it requires more than just changing the language.

The progressive social movements of the last half-century produced millions of pages of print, from manifestos to journalism to novels, but nothing as influential as Our Bodies, Ourselves. The feminist women’s health manual is the American left’s most valuable written contribution to the world. This claim is meant to be provocative, of course, but it’s true. The publication of an excellent book about the book, Kathy Davis’s The Making of Our Bodies, Ourselves: How Feminism Travels Across Borders, makes this a good time to examine its impact.

Bodies, Ourselves spoke for a women’s health movement that transformed American medicine and popular health-and-sexuality culture. In the 1960s, physicians commonly addressed female patients as if they could not understand medical diagnoses and sometimes withheld information about their illnesses; unmarried women could not legally get birth control; women who sought sterilization had to qualify under an arbitrary formula (number of children x patient’s age = >120), while poor and minority women were sometimes sterilized without their knowledge, let alone consent; women were routinely excluded from clinical trials of important drugs; women discussed breast cancer in whispers with a sense of shame. A nationwide hypocrisy pretended that sex fit only in marriage; most gays and lesbians had to dissemble when seeking healthcare; Americans mostly believed that whole milk, red meat and cheese were fundamental to a healthy diet.

Starting from this landscape, the achievements of the American women’s health movement are impressive: prohibiting coercive sterilizations, opening public discussion of breast cancer, regaining women’s control over childbirth, requiring physicians’ honesty toward patients, radically increasing the number of female doctors and women’s health centers, impelling sex manuals to discuss women’s sexual pleasure as well as men’s and maintaining — barely, against unremitting attack — the right to reproductive choice. But few understand these victories as the hard-fought products of a social movement.

The original book, published in 1970 on newsprint for 75 cents, sold 250,000 copies without a commercial distributor. The radical content of the book would have been inconceivable without the civil rights/new left/feminist context. It included a left-wing critique of medicine in a corporate economy; detailed line drawings of genitalia, complete with pubic hair and the variety of hymens different women might have; a discussion of sex that presented heterosexuality, lesbianism, masturbation and celibacy as equally healthy; a section on abortion that told the reader where to go to get one, illegally in Massachusetts or legally abroad, and estimated the costs of these options — this was not your standard left-wing political pamphlet.

Even less well-known is that for more than thirty years Our Bodies, Ourselves supported and energized women activists throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. These women’s movements — antiwar, anti-fundamentalist, anti-neoliberalism, pro-human rights — are often the most progressive forces in the field. Worldwide, the book has sold well over 4 million copies (its various versions, some of them unauthorized, and its multiple distributing channels make it impossible to get an exact count) in more than twenty languages from Swedish to Albanian to Korean, not counting Braille and audio versions, with several more translations in progress. The profits, along with much other fundraising, support education, advocacy and new translations. (Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel helped support the Russian translation). In other words, the book has had marathon legs. Its global impact comes not mainly from the information it offers but, as feminist scholar Kathy Davis argues, from its radical method: a democratic politics of knowledge and expertise.

The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, which produced the first Our Bodies, Ourselves (titled Women and Their Bodies), emerged from consciousness raising, the potent organizational tool invented by the women’s liberation movement. CR groups, when they worked well, did not aim at therapy or support (although support was an important byproduct) but examined how gender and women’s subordination were reproduced and maintained. These small groups created a free space in which women gained the confidence to challenge dictates on the nature of woman by religious leaders, lawmakers and physicians. Consciousness-raising operated on the premise that women could challenge even their own assumptions, exploring alternative explanations of, say, why women cleaned and cared for children, and men so often merely “helped.” Through the analysis of shared experience, CR groups developed oppositional interpretations of women’s and men’s “nature,” today called gender. Our Bodies, Ourselves continued that process with a focus on health.

If Our Bodies, Ourselves had retained its original authorship, the homogeneity of the original Boston-based CR group — in class, race and nationality — would have limited its appeal. The group’s concern with women’s concrete experience led them to gather many personal reports, so the book’s sources grew increasingly varied. As activists in other countries discovered the book, they asked for versions in their own languages. As Davis recounts in her history of the book’s global expansion, the original authors soon came to understand how saturated their book was with the perspective of educated, middle-class, white American women. In fact, the group’s initial chutzpah in challenging medical authority was partly a product of these women’s privilege. As their global sophistication increased, the Boston group came to a new understanding of what “translation” requires: Words, sentences, images and anecdotes have different meanings in different contexts. What was oppositional and radical for the Boston authors, such as challenging mainstream medicine, made no sense to women who lacked access to medical care.

The authors realized that you could not just hire a translator, or allow publishers in other countries to hire translators. The non-English versions of Our Bodies, Ourselves were adaptations, and they could emerge only from protracted discussion. The authors work closely with “translators,” discussing how to present controversial material and providing help with publishing arrangements, information resources, graphics, fundraising and connections with activists worldwide.

We should not imagine that in these global discussions US feminists were necessarily more “advanced.” In some cultures — and not just European ones — women were accustomed to speaking of sex more frankly than Americans. (Bawdy jokes among women are common, for example, in many conservative Muslim cultures). Germans thought the book was too focused on motherhood; several Third World women’s groups thought Americans did not grasp the global economy of health.

Kathy Davis watched closely as a group of health activists from throughout Latin America created a 2000 translation, Nuestros Cuerpos, Nuestras Vidas. New experiential accounts and illustrations to reflect Latinas’ lives were just the beginning. The “translators” wanted more poetic language, not only for literary reasons but because of the oral traditions of many who would hear but not read the book. One of the most sex-radical images in the book, a woman alone on a bed looking at her vagina and cervix in a mirror, would have made no sense to them, because it assumed the book would be read by an individual in private. The Latinas wanted to reach women who could never buy the book and never had a private room; they oriented their book for group educational meetings. Furthermore, they disliked the self-help emphasis of Our Bodies, Ourselves, which they associated with the individualist, private solutions emphasized by Americans. They banished the words auto ayuda and used ayuda mutual.

The American book began with a discussion of body image and the yearning for a perfect, sexualized body — pressures the Latinas blamed on a commercialized, wealthy and individualistic culture. Distress about body image was not a major concern in Latin America. Their first chapter, instead, was “Perspectiva Internacional,” which discussed issues the Americans had put at the end of the book: the problems of poor women deprived of resources yet responsible for family maintenance, problems created by neocolonialism and global corporate power. A chart reports educational levels, contraceptive use, maternal mortality (8 per 100,000 in the United States, 650 per 100,000 in Bolivia) and other social indicators across the Americas. Yet, the first sentence in this chapter reads, “Como feministas, sentimos un vínculo entrañable con todas las mujeres” (“As feminists, we feel a close bond with all women”) — a strong assertion of common interests.

They also added material. Before their critique of modern scientific medicine they discussed traditional healing practices, distinguishing them from an “Anglo, New Age approach.” They used Mexican religious retablos, for example, to honor healers of the past and the foremothers of the “translators.” They discussed women’s activism on issues other than health, such as that of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina. The American book mentioned religion only in its discussion of antiabortion activism; the Latinas wrote a fuller and more complex discussion of Catholicism. They believed its sanctity-of-life values could be transformed from a screen for forcing motherhood and subordination on women into the imperative to protect the lives of children already born, of women, of communities.

Our Bodies, Ourselves is no longer a bestseller, and many young American women have not heard of it. Many think they no longer need it because much of its information has become mainstream. But health messages these days typically come from corporations, selling goods and services as commodities, often with reckless claims. Though it faces different challenges, an oppositional health movement is no less needed today than in 1970.

Meanwhile, the terrain has shifted, and much of the leadership of the women’s health movement — and of progressive women’s activism generally — comes from the global South, where Our Bodies, Ourselves has become part of a transnational women’s health movement. Active in the anticolonial movements of the mid-twentieth century, women soon saw that national independence by no means guaranteed democracy or public welfare, let alone their emancipation. Some women’s health activism developed from the need to resist negative developments: in a vivid illustration of the diversity of local conditions, Indian women opposed a coercive population-control policy, while Filipinas opposed suppression of abortion and contraception. A 1977 International Conference on Women and Health jump-started an international women’s health movement. Ten international women-and-health meetings have convened at regular intervals, mainly in global South countries. At these, along with the meetings of NGOs accompanying the UN-sponsored gatherings at Nairobi (1985), Cairo (1994) and Beijing (1995), activists shared problems, created ever denser global connections and spread the movement. Regional coalitions supplement national groups in most parts of the world.

For too long, many of the big foundations and aid agencies — and many feminists in the global North — assumed that reproduction control was the highest health priority for poor countries. The international women’s health movement works to educate them otherwise, communicating not only grassroots needs but also a global structural analysis of the problems women face. Throughout Africa and parts of Asia, clean water is a top priority, and achieving it means resisting the rapidly encroaching privatization of water. Women want action against pollution, environmental destruction and exposure to toxics in manufacturing and agriculture. Agencies have begun to learn from women’s health movements that violence against women and women’s poverty are major contributors to HIV/AIDS.

Unfortunately, this activism is largely defensive, in the face of fundamentalist repression and IMF/World Bank “structural adjustment” policies requiring cuts in social, education and health spending. Health indicators are worsening in many parts of the global South and in former communist countries. Women face pharmaceutical companies’ attempts to block generic drugs, privatization and “user fees” for healthcare and education, US bans on foreign aid to effective reproductive and sexual health programs, high levels of violence against women and attempts to impose reactionary religious family law.

Still, world health would be worse without the activism of the international women’s health movement. By the mid-1990s, that movement was largely responsible for forcing the World Bank to backtrack somewhat, urging governments to provide at least rudimentary healthcare and treatment for infectious diseases. The new People’s Health Movement ( has put women’s health issues at the forefront of its campaigns. But compared with the size of the problem — to use a single example, one in 7,300 women in developed countries die during pregnancy or childbirth; in Africa, one in twenty-six — progress has been poor.

As the feminist slogan goes, “Women deliver.” In other words, when women control resources, the social gain is greater than when men control resources. Improving health for the poor is as likely to produce progressive change as any other strategy, because health activism these days requires challenging the world’s most powerful and destructive forces. Matters of the body are politically fundamental. If Our Bodies, Ourselves contributed even in a small way to activating women globally, American feminists can feel proud.

Linda Gordon is professor of history at New York University. She is the author, among other works, of The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (Harvard) and, with Rosalyn Baxandall, Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement (Basic). She is working on a biography of Dorothea Lange.

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