Elizabeth Aguiling-Pangalangan

(WOMENSENEWS)–Barely 10 days after her wedding, a 19-year-old’s husband was asked to report to the Indian army for duty.

He disappeared during the 1999 border war between India and Pakistan and was declared a deserter. Her family waited four years for his return and then arranged for her to marry her cousin.

Some months after her second wedding the bride was informed that her first husband was not a deserter but a prisoner of war in a Pakistani jail. Already remarried and pregnant, she faced the return of her first husband amid a national public debate among religious leaders about which man was her rightful husband. The debate played out in media reports and village councils.

One television channel conducted a reality show, bringing the two husbands, their family members and the young woman together to discuss the matter.

Eventually, religious leaders said Islamic law dictated that she give her infant, once born, to her second husband, who then had to divorce her.

Returned to her first husband, she tried to bear another child, but it was stillborn and she fell ill from septicemia. She was admitted to hospital, yet died. She was 26.

"The fact that all this happened, in the space of a couple of years, draws in very poignant ways the connections between intimate and inter-group violence against women and her engagements with patriarchy, community and conflict," said Kalpana Kannabiran, a founding member of Asmita Resource Center for Women, based in Secunderabad, India.

World Falls Short in Goals

The stagnant maternal death toll in the developing world and poor reproductive health are once again in focus.

Later this month international leaders will convene at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., to evaluate funding priorities in meeting global targets to improve women’s reproductive health and the other U.N. millennium development goals set in 2000.

This follows an April 17 warning by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that international goals to reduce maternal and child deaths would not be met by 2015. The report was timed for the opening of a global health conference in Cape Town, South Africa.

In remarks on that report, Thoraya Obaid, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund, noted that funds for family planning as a percentage of all population assistance decreased to 7 percent in 2005 from 55 percent in 1995. "The victims of this funding gap are poor women in poor countries who cannot exercise their reproductive rights and plan their families," she said. "Sexual and reproductive health is essential to women’s empowerment and gender equality."

Last October, about 1,200 researchers, government officials, policymakers and advocates met in Hyderabad, India, in October at the 4th Asian Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights. That’s where Kannabiran told the story of the woman who died at 26 after being pushed and pulled by war, marriage and intense public scrutiny.

The meeting focused on religious fundamentalism–whether Catholic, Hindu or Muslim–as a major hindrance to maternal health goals.

"The reproductive and sexual health rights of women are always hurt by religious fundamentalism during times of conflict, whether it is wars or riots," Kannabiran told conference participants.

Controlling Women’s Fertility

While Kannabiran focused on Muslim fundamentalism, Jashodhara Das took aim at fundamentalism in India’s dominant religious group.

"Hindu fundamentalists vociferously oppose the exercise of women’s choice in sexual partners," said Das, executive director of Sahayog–"Assist" in English–a women’s health advocacy group in Lucknow, India. "They believe that women’s sexuality or non-reproductive sexuality must be restricted and women’s self-esteem must be curtailed."

Das said Hindu fundamentalists are spreading fear that higher birth rates in the minority Muslim community threaten Hindus and that women’s fertility must be strictly controlled as a matter of cultural survival. Abortion, in this context, is branded as feticide.

Das said Hindu fundamentalists often treat menstruation as "bad blood" with harmful properties. Menstruating women are prevented from entering kitchens, temples and even the bedroom. This "untouchability," she said, inhibits menstrual hygiene and raises the risk of infections, such as in the urinary tract, for women too ashamed to seek care.

Hindu fundamentalism spurs vehement opposition toward lesbian and gay people and fuels strife, said Das. She gave the example of attacks on women and girls during a spree of violence and retaliations between Hindus and Muslims that left hundreds dead in Gujarat in 2002. Scores of Muslim women were raped, mutilated and burned to death, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch, which documented the conflict.

Elizabeth Aguiling-Pangalangan, a professor of reproductive health rights and ethics at the University of the Philippines, criticized the effects of Catholic fundamentalism on women in her 85-percent Catholic country, one of the few countries in the world where divorce is not recognized.

Abortion is illegal and contraception is not encouraged in the Philippines, and Aguiling-Pangalangan said every year as many as 750,000 women have abortions in illegal clinics and many die from infection, hemorrhage and other complications.

Church-State Separation Urged

The Philippine constitution enshrines equality and protection of women’s rights and the government has signed the United Nations Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women, the 1979 international treaty that includes the right to access family planning services and information.

Nonetheless, Aguiling-Pangalangan said an "excessive entanglement" of government with religion is detrimental to women, who would benefit by a separation of the church from the state.

Zaitun Kasim is program manager for Sisters in Islam, a nongovernmental organization based in Selangor, Malaysia, that believes Islam upholds principles of equality, justice, freedom and dignity. She sees a connection between the increasing politicization of Islam and the worsening of conditions for women.

"There has been a growth of religious right ideologies which increasingly use religion, culture and human rights to maintain and extend their political power over both public and private domains," she said.

They confuse–either deliberately or unwittingly–Islamic texts and political beliefs, she said, or substitute basic tenets with rituals and call it Sharia.

Kasim said fundamentalists are extending their power over women through practices such as female genital mutilation, virginity testing, marital rape and persecution based on morality policing, personal rituals and clothing.

"These violations have little to do with Islam and all to do with the abuse and politicization of Islam," said Kasim. "Wife-beating and oppression of women is seen as legitimate in the purview of religious fundamentalism. This pushes women into believing that they are meek beings with no right whatsoever in voicing their opinion and discussing their problems. Political decisions ultimately make or break women’s lives."

Swapna Majumdar is a journalist based in New Delhi writing on politics, gender and development issues.

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