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War against women

Paulini Saurogo
Friday, November 30, 2012

WOMEN in Fiji should be concerned when poverty is largely blamed on their fertility by those who offer quick-fix solutions without analytically considering all of the dynamics that come into play when discussing the poverty-population discourse.

A writer to the opinion column of this daily FT 23/11 wrote under the title No free babies: "There are just too many females in Fiji who do not have the financial means to have a baby yet expect hardworking taxpayers to foot the bill of their selfish indiscretion. Bottom line is stop popping out babies the country can't afford, instead find a job first to support yourselves and the country."

The writer also mentions a similar law to China's one-child policy to be enforced locally.

The writer's words allude to so many aspects like reproductive health and access to services, inequalities in the job market, taxation, budgetary allocation, and domestic and informal labour markets (mainly unpaid work) largely taken up by women. Yet the point that seems to be stressed in neon lights is, if women were less fertile, we'd be so much closer to solving our poverty crisis.

First of all buddy, it takes two to tango and create the mango. Every story has two sides to it.

The overarching umbrella of "selfish indiscrete" women in the writer's invective include victims of rape and victims of unsolicited incestuous advances, and women who live with partners who refuse the use of contraceptives. The reality is that lots of women are unable to negotiate their own reproductive health.

If Fiji were to put a quota on how many children a couple should have, we will inevitably start to discriminate between sexes according to the values of the society we are brought up in, and it's almost safe to assume that Fijian society will mirror China's, where male babies have pre-eminence over female babies. When this happens, we open another complicated door to the high probability of female foeticide occurring through sex-selective abortion in a country where our large rural female population has limited access to contraceptive and reproductive health services, meaning unsafe abortions may be the only alternative available to them in order to meet State laws.

What's more, Fiji will begin to lose its communal dependency and family ties that we value so much because children will have no siblings and no aunts, no uncles, no cousins as is becoming the reality now in places like China.

Economically the first children born under a population control policy will face the prospect of caring for an ever-increasing number of pensioners.

In years to come, Fiji will face the same dilemma as India where the ratio of boys to girls stands at 1.12 male(s): one female at birth and 1.13 male(s): one female under 15 years of age. In 1961, for every 1000 boys under the age of seven, there were 976 girls. Today, the figure has dropped to a dismal 914 girls.

The imbalance in the sexes will cause unrest in the male population when it becomes difficult to find a partner under Fiji's heteronormative enabling laws.

Chai Ling, a Chinese immigrant to the US and the founder of the organisation All Girls Allowed, said in an interview: "For every six boys born in China, that sixth baby girl is not allowed to live. So the sixth boy will never be able to find a bride, so that becomes a massive problem for sex trafficking. So China's one-child policy is not just a Chinese problem, it is a global issue."

Fiji really doesn't need to add to this global issue by imposing such birth control measures on a population, that although needs improvement in family planning policies and practice, would only be doing more harm than good.

The writer, who for no sexist or personal reason, than to drive my next point home, is male, also bewailed the unfairness of being the innocent and hardworking taxpayer burdened with the costs of an expanding population.

The reality in the global south is the tendency to have particularly low levels of taxation on income tax and an over-reliance on consumption taxes or indirect taxes for example VAT, where the tax can be levied on the seller, but is inevitably paid by the consumer in the retail setting because prices of commodities increase. In such a reality women suffer disproportionately from the regressive nature of indirect taxes, because they make up the majority of the poor population. Men are more likely than women to benefit from corporate and income tax exemptions because they are more likely to own property and shares. It's women who get the short end of the stick. It then becomes imperative to narrow the gender disparity through tax justice and gender responsive budgeting that I will talk about later on. (See graphic).

The discourse on poverty and population control is reminiscent of the discourse on climate change and population control where the narrow focus on reducing birthrates ignores the other demographic dynamics that factor into the population-climate equation, such as urbanisation and immigration trends, industrialisation, and most importantly, per capita resource consumption.

These are all factors that affect the environment, but women's fertility is singled out as the arch-nemesis. Here is another classic example of the blame game and war perpetrated on women's bodies to fix social and other problems.

Nevertheless Fiji does have other options to take when addressing the population-poverty discourse. One such avenue is ensuring that comprehensive sexuality education is included in schools' curricula. Comprehensive sexuality education includes messages about abstinence, as well as medically accurate information about reproduction, human development, contraceptive methods and sexually transmitted infections. It also includes information about relationships, decision-making, assertiveness, skill-building to resist social/peer pressure, gender and body image.

Comprehensive sexual education has been demonstrated to delay the initiation of sexual activity among young people and equip them with the knowledge of how to protect themselves from STIs and unplanned pregnancies.

Additionally, family planning policies can be developed that incorporate the International Conference on Population and Development's (ICPD) program of action whose provisions include:

p Family planning counseling, Information Education and Communication (IEC) and services;

p IEC and services for prenatal care, safe delivery and postnatal care;

p Prevention and appropriate treatment of infertility;

p Treatment of reproductive tract infections; sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and AIDS; and other reproductive health conditions;

p IEC and counseling on human sexuality, reproductive health and responsible parenthood; and

p Referrals for further diagnosis and treatment as required for family planning services, complication of pregnancy, delivery, abortion, infertility, RTIs, cancer, STIs, and HIV and AIDS.

These recommendations can be better achieved through a more gender responsive budget.

Gender responsive budgeting is basically government budgeting, programming and planning with outcomes focused on advancing gender equality. In many instances it requires affirmative action given to a marginalised group in order to put them on par with the rest.

In the 2013 budget, an additional $15 million has been allocated to the Ministry of Health, totalling $167 million. How much of this budget will go to enhancing sexual and reproductive health services and expertise?

$268 million, representing an increase of $12 million, has been allocated for education. I'm sure many youth groups and progressive women's organisations in Fiji are still holding out hope that a core of this budget will go into comprehensive sexual education for our children.

Apart from drawing us closer to our ideal birth and development rates, the results may also calm the qualms of many a disgruntled letter writer.

* Paulini Saurogo is the young women's project co-ordinator at the YWCA. The views expressed are hers and not of this newspaper.

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