1 November 2018

Africa: Gay & Lesbian Rights Prove Divisive At Parliamentarians' Conference

Ottawa — When the International Parliamentarians' Conference (ICPI) on population and development concluded its two-day forum in the Canadian capital last week, more than 150 legislators from around the world approved a seven page Declaration reaffirming their opposition to some of the culturally sensitive issues, including female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriages.

The legislators pledged to take measures to prevent adolescent pregnancies and unsafe abortions; guarantee access to safe and modern methods of contraception; adopt legislation to eliminate FGM and child and forced marriages; raise the minimum legal age of marriage to 18 years; and enact laws to end discrimination on the basis of gender and sexuality.

Ousman Sillah, national assembly member from Gambia and chairperson of the Select Committee on Health, Women and Children, urged legislators to ensure implementation of the proposals "even if we are to lose our seats - and commit political suicide."

But one sensitive issue failed to get off the ground: the rights of gays, lesbians and transgender people.

The contentious issue proved divisive- as some of the Muslim and African nations expressed reservations about including LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex) in the text of the final Declaration.

"There are certain words - like LGBTI - that are not acceptable in our country," said a parliamentarian from the Middle East.

The reservations were not surprising considering the fact that 71 countries have either banned or criminalized homosexuals, including lesbians and transgender people.

But this number, according to the annual report of the LGBTI Association, titled "State Sponsored Homophobia", is really down: from 92 countries back in 2006.

The controversial non-paragraph in the Declaration should have read: ... many "who are marginalized or in vulnerable situations face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, including LGBTI, who are still subject to discriminatory laws, policies and harmful practices... "

After a long drawn out discussion, the legislators agreed on a compromise, and adopted the Declaration by consensus, so that the final text would read "including sexual minorities", instead of "LGBTI".

Still, some of the other vulnerable groups, like indigenous peoples, have remained marginalized in relation to reproductive health and education.

In an interview with IPS, Rep. Teddy Jr. Baguilat, member of the Philippine House of Representatives from Ifugao's Lone District, said Indigenous Peoples (IP) of the Philippines, particularly in Central Luzon, the small islands and Mindanao, remain the poorest of the poor with limited access to public health and education.

"While the situation has improved a bit as government strives to conceptualise more social protection programs to the marginalised, including the IPs, a large number of them remain economically dependent on subsistence farming and government dole outs."

He pointed out that there are still instances of displacement of indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands due to extractive industries, civil war, climactic changes and development projects.

"Some tribal leaders have also been killed because of their defense of their ancestral lands," said Baguilat, a strong advocate of indigenous rights.

"The law to protect IPs are in place and only its honest-to-goodness implementation and adequate funding can IPs fulfill many of their goals as mandated by our Constitution and the Indigenous People's Rights Act," he declared.

Meanwhile, the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic Asian country, has one of the fastest growing populations in the region with the highest total fertility rate among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)--the other nine being Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

The country's current population stands at over 107 million with over half of Filipinos 24 years of age or below.

"For this youthful country to reap a demographic dividend, there is an imminent need to invest more in health, education and employability of young people and on gender equality," says Iori Kato, UNFPA Country Representative in the Philippines.

In the Philippines, 49 per cent of unmarried, sexually active women and 17 per cent of married women have an unmet need for family planning, as the 2017 National Demographic and Health survey revealed, according to UNFPA.

The report found there is no country that can claim that all of its citizens enjoy reproductive rights at all times. Most couples cannot have the number of children that they want because they either lack economic and social support to achieve their preferred family size, or the means to control their fertility. The unmet need for modern contraception prevents hundreds of millions of women in the world from choosing smaller families, according to the report.

Asked how much of progress Philippines has made on the 1994 Program of Action (PoA)- including gains in reproductive health (RH), gender empowerment and reduction in maternal and infant mortality--Baguilat said: "Unfortunately, despite some relevant legislation passed like the Reproductive Health (RH) and Responsible Parenthood Law and the Magna Carta for Women, we have failed to curb maternal mortality and while fertility rates have gone down, it's still relatively very high in the region."

He pointed out that budgetary allocations have been insufficient. For RH alone, it is estimated that at least P4Billion is needed yearly to provide the unmet RH needs of the poor and yet our recently passed annual budget only allotted P200Million

"Being a predominantly Catholic country, resistance to contraceptive use and very conservative religious values have led to big families in many poor communities".

The Philippine legislator also said that HIV AIDS infections, among the highest in the world in terms of increase, and rising teenage pregnancy are among the country's serious reproductive health problems.

A new HIV AIDS law and an anti-teenage pregnancy bill will hopefully provide stronger legislative mechanism to combat this problem.

"The historic transition to lower fertility has emerged through people claiming their right to make choices about their reproductive lives, and to have as few, or as many, children as they want, when they want," according to The State of World Population 2018, published last month by UNFPA.

Excerpts from the interview:

IPS: What role have parliamentarians played in helping achieve the ICPD goals since the 1994 Cairo conference?

Rep. Baguilat: Many parliamentarians are unaware of the ICPD goals. The presidential form of government has led to a disconnect, sometimes between government's commitment to international agreements and Congress' obligations to actualise these agreements such as the ICPD through budgetary allocations and legislation.

There's a need for more information dissemination on the ICPD goals for us Parliamentarians to fulfill our duties as legislators

IPS: On average, how much of development funding, including official development assistance (ODA), has the Philippines received from Western donors? What is the gap between needs and deliveries?

Rep. Baguilat: The Philippines has already graduated from a low income country to a middle income country and thus receives less ODA from donor countries despite emerging public health problems.

IPS: On a more wider question, how is Southeast Asia faring in terms of achieving the goals of the ICPD's Program of Action? Any thoughts?

Rep. Baguilat: Religion and cultural beliefs remain a strong barrier for the region to achieve ICPD targets. Generally, indicators have improved but there are still marginalised sectors which remain poor and under serviced.

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