Page 3844 - Week 10 - Wednesday, 27 August 2008

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So this is a debate that has many sides to it. It is, of course, also terrible to hear of women who are made to use contraception against their wishes, especially when that contraception is bad for them, which was the case in the early days of Depo-Provera. And I guess we all know of the 1970s forced sterilisations of Indian women.

There is no doubt about it: women’s bodies are a battlefield. In this country, the touchstone issue is abortion. Because of the fight of feminists, as women in this country we are, on the whole, very well off compared to a lot of women in other parts of the world, something that we should never be complacent about. I remember when the debates were going on in this Assembly a few years ago. There was the issue of women being given a cooling-off period and shown photos of foetuses in a way to “assist” them to make their decision.

It was a matter of having to get out on the streets again. There is nothing more wearing than having to march again, speak again and rally again for a right that you believe you have won. For women this is the case. Abortion is such an issue. It is an issue that unfortunately we have to fight for over and over again.

I guess people know that my PhD was a study on the International Conference on Population and Development, in particular the influence of the so-called moral right—that is what I call them, because they are not all religious—on the policies of the American government. They are highly influential in this area. We saw cuts to the funding of a United Nations Population Fund. We saw women at the 2000 conference Beijing Plus Five hassled, preyed upon and leapt upon by strange men wearing monks’ robes who felt they had the right to accost young women, especially. Those young women were there because they were speaking up for women’s rights to contraception, abortion and the ability to choose whether or not they had children and how they lived their lives. Lesbianism is another of these touchstones and often merges into these debates.

We get into very dark places when people start talking about stopping women’s rights. When people debate when a child’s life begins and incontrovertibly say that it begins at a certain time, I almost wonder how consequential that issue is and how much it gives anybody the right to tell a woman what she can do.

I want to touch on something that we also need to avoid. In the debate around population, the popular thing to do—and, of course, it is true to some extent—is to say, “Well, if women can choose whether or not to have children, if women have their rights, we have solved the population problem.” These people—and they are right to do so—talk about girls’ education, women’s education, access to employment and economic equality. That is the World Bank’s particular conversation. But these discussions always exclude men. Women cannot do it unless men are there supporting them.

That takes me back to my earlier comment on men speaking in this debate. It is absolutely essential that men do speak up for women’s rights on abortion, just as they need to be speaking up against violence against women. There is the debate about AIDS in particular. Let us talk about Africa and Melanesia, where in many places women’s rights are a long way off. There, if a woman is educated, it may not help her

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