Interview with Jaime Todd-Gher (Part-1)

Jaime Todd-Gher is a human rights lawyer specializing in issues of gender, sexuality, and health. She is working as an Independent Consultant and a Reproductive and Sexual Health Law Fellow with the University of Toronto, International Reproductive and Sexual Health Law Program, Faculty of Law. She recently worked as a Legal Advisor and Strategic Litigation Specialist with Amnesty International. She has also worked as a Human Rights Advisor and Programme Officer with the WHO and UNAIDS, and in the Global Legal Program with the Center for Reproductive Rights. Jaime regularly engages in human rights litigation and advocacy before United Nations and regional human rights bodies. She has also served on the Board of Directors for the AIDS Legal Referral Program and the National LGBT Bar Association and is currently a sitting Board Member for Women Enabled International.

Jaime holds an LL.M. in International law and gender from American University, Washington College of law, a J.D. from the University of San Francisco, School of Law, and a B.A. in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. I had the honor of interviewing her. I thank her for this meaningful conversation. The interview is transcribed below.

Question: As per your observation, do you feel women in today’s time are more aware and vocal about their sexual and reproductive rights? What do you think led to this change?

Answer: Yes, I do think that women in many contexts are more mobilized today. More and more women are completing primary, secondary and collegiate education, which is a significant source of empowerment. We are also seeing a rise in progressive movements. There is a collective energy around making change. However, what I really see as a key factor leading to an increase in mobilization is the retrenchment of women’s rights that we are witnessing around the world. This is compelling women to take to the streets, to file lawsuits, to go to the media, and to demand their rights. So, in essence, a lot of our mobilization is reactionary, which of course is necessary.

We are also seeing a rise in nationalism and anti-gender movements that ascribe to the notion that gender diverse individuals are destroying the nuclear, heteronormative family, a re-assertion of women’s purported “rightful role” as mothers and caretakers, and law and policy reform explicitly aimed at restricting access to contraception, abortion, and comprehensive sexuality education. All of this leads to a collective feeling of women’s rights being under attack. I really think that this has given women, especially younger women, a motivation to push back because this is not happening in just one country or one region, but worldwide. So, despite all the positive developments we have seen over the years, I do think there is a retrenchment of women’s rights which is significant, so we must stand up!

Question: Do you think the international norms and standards around sexual and reproductive health and rights are up to mark?

Answer: I certainly think that there has been a remarkable evolution of international norms and standards around sexual and reproductive health and rights in the past few decades. We are light years ahead, in terms of seeing an explicit articulation of sexual and reproductive rights as core human rights issues that implicate a wide range of states’ international legal obligations. But, of course, there is always room for improvement. Given that women’s rights were not originally conceived as human rights within the original treaties and instruments of the UN human rights system, it continues to be an uphill battle to convince people that sexual and reproductive rights are human rights. This is just the reality we are working in.

While progress has been made, a lot of gaps remain. For example, we still do not have an explicit recognition of personal, decisional and bodily autonomy in the realms of sexuality and reproduction. Our strongest human rights hooks continue to be the rights to health, life, freedom from torture and other ill-treatment, privacy, and equality and non-discrimination. These are useful and compelling advocacy frames, but women’s rights movements will be stronger and more powerful once we can gain widely accepted recognition that women, girls, and all people who can become pregnant have full autonomy over their bodies, sexualities, and reproduction. Until that time, we still have a lot of work to do.

Question: Unsafe abortions are a public health issue. Why is there a level of insensitivity among policymakers and politicians around this issue?

Answer: Unsafe abortions is a significant health and human rights issue. It is one of the leading causes of maternal mortality and morbidity, as well as preventable infertility. Unsafe abortion leads to significant physical and mental harm. One of the most unjust aspects of unsafe abortion is that pregnant individuals are often compelled to resort to unsafe abortions due to restrictive abortion laws around the world, and in many contexts, they can be thrown in jail for years for having an abortion. The same restrictive abortion laws can even lead to women who have suffered miscarriages and stillbirths to being arrested and prosecuted – based on the presumption that they had an abortion.

It is baffling to me that law and policy makers – many of which are men who have never experienced and will never experience an unwanted pregnancy – continue to address abortion with such great insensitivity. I still try to wrap my head around it, but I tend to believe that it boils down to a complete lack of valuing of women’s lives and bodies. I am also astonished by the mental gymnastics that people undertake to think that a pregnant woman and her fetus are separate entities pitted against each other, when, that is just not the case. Only a pregnant person can know and understand whether they are able to bear, birth and raise a child—something that has lifelong implications for their life, and the lives of their partners and families. It is also a matter of patriarchy, sexism, and a dehumanization of pregnant people, which translates to controlling people who do not want to be pregnant because they are “committing a moral wrong”.

Interview with Jaime Todd-Gher (Part-2)

Question: As per your understanding, what could be done so that national governments take the issue of reproductive rights and sexual health more seriously?

Answer: I think, foremost, we need large-scale law and policy reform to remove the vast number of restrictions imposed on the bodies, sexualities, reproduction and lives of all women, children and people who can become pregnant. If we look at the disproportionate number of restrictive laws and policies that dictate our bodies, health, and reproduction, it is outrageous. There is also a need for structural reforms that work against patriarchy which accords greater value and trust to men and boys. By contrast, women, and girls, and really all people who transgress gender norms, are accorded less value and not trusted. Also, like the structural reform that needs to take place to address systemic and institutionalized racism, sexism must be tackled at all levels.

I further believe that community change initiatives to transform gender norms is essential. We can no longer live with the status quo where women’s bodies and lives continue to be the subject of public debate and law and policy making. We are all humans and as a community, men, women, and any person should not be restricted in terms of how they act, live, work, express themselves, etc. We need to think about how we can flourish as a community where everyone’s strengths, interests, health, and rights are equally valid and valued. Along these lines, I think a lot needs to happen in terms of information and education provision, and sensitization around gender. I really believe that we all are born with different attributes, interests, and skills, and that we cannot be compelled to fit into specific boxes and categories, and that should be okay.

Question: You have a wide experience spanning different geographies. Which countries have the most developed legislation related to sexual and reproductive rights? Which countries need to consider this issue more seriously? (It would not require any specific answer in the form of any country’s name if that is not possible. A mention of certain geographical regions or continents would also be helpful.) 

Answer: Legislation related to sexual and reproductive rights can come in many forms, whether it explicitly focus on sexuality and reproduction or whether it has a direct or indirect impact on one’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. One thing I can say for sure is that no one country has gotten it right. Every country has a legal framework that, to some extent, infringes on sexual and reproductive health and rights. There are some countries that more explicitly recognize the autonomy of women and girls to make decisions about their sexual and reproductive health, including some countries in Europe, Latin America, and parts of North America. However, even in these countries, there are laws, policies and practices that create barriers to individuals exercising their sexual and reproductive rights.

Let us consider, for example, Canada where abortion has been fully decriminalized and removed entirely from the penal code. Even there, women and girls still face obstacles to accessing abortion services due to costs, geographic location, race, ethnicity, age and/or Indigenous identity. It is not enough to simply change one law. You must look at the entire legal and policy framework, and its interplay with social, economic, and cultural factors, to assess actual access to abortion services. There are also countries in Europe that have policies that seem quite liberal and call for subsidizing access to contraception and family planning to promote women’s and girls’ control over their fertility, but when you look closer you see that the policy also includes a provision that excludes migrants and refugees from its protections and support, thus having a discriminatory impact on these populations.

I also wanted to mention that we should not simply think about sexual and reproductive rights. Rather we should frame our advocacy and litigation in terms of reproductive justice – which conceives of enabling and empowering individuals to create and nurture the families that they want in conditions where they can thrive. At present, we have legal and other systems that promote reproduction of certain people (often married, heterosexual couples of a certain socio-economic status), while at the same time these systems dissuade or actively work against other individuals from reproducing and forming families, including the poor, the criminalized, black, brown, and Indigenous people, LGBTQ individuals, and people with disabilities (to name a few). So, I think we can miss a lot of human rights issues when we solely focus on ensuring that people can control their fertility. We also need to look at people who are being oppressed and/or prevented from having children as they are not seen as worthy of reproducing, and the structural conditions that prioritize certain individuals and groups in our societies and devalues others.

Question: Recently, the Duchess of Sussex shared that she suffered the miscarriage of her second pregnancy. It has again brought forth an observation that there are very few public conversations about it. Do you think it is high time we stop considering miscarriage as a taboo?

Answer: It is absolutely high time to talk about miscarriage more openly! A vast majority of women around the world experience miscarriages. It is both a common phenomenon and yet a traumatic one. We see people suffering miscarriages alone in silence, not reaching out to their friends or loved ones for support. To make matters worse, as I mentioned before, women and girls can be thrown in jail in some countries for suffering a miscarriage. Its inhumane! I recall facing the tremendous grief of my own miscarriages and then imagining what it would feel like if my life and liberty were also threatened because of my pregnancy loss. I cannot even fathom how difficult that would be.

I also think that there is a fine line between abortion and miscarriage. In essence, they are both a termination of pregnancy. The medication used to induce an abortion is the same medication used to manage a miscarriage in many cases. Abortion and miscarriage are both fraught with sadness, confusion, fear and, in some cases, relief. In both of these closely connected experiences, women and girls continue to suffer alone.

Whether a person is facing an abortion or a miscarriage they deserve to be supported and treated with dignity and respect. We should be talking about these experiences openly so that we can find ways to destigmatize pregnancy loss and termination of pregnancy, to provide better support women and girls and their partners and families, and to ensure that people are no longer facing the pain alone.

Conservative mobilization and adolescent pregnancy in Latin America

by Camila Gianella, Marta R. de Assis Machado and Angélica Peñas Defago

On September 27, 2017, the Brazilian Supreme Court – in a 6 to 5 judgmentdecided that public schools can have “confessional” (Catholic) religious teaching in their curriculum. The constitutional case had been proposed by the Attorney General, who argued that current practice – that privileges Roman Catholic indoctrination – would violate the separation between Church and State as well as religious freedom. Although the judgment brings severe consequences to education rights in Brazil, it is only one example of the recent battles by conservative religious groups to influence Brazilian public education. The Catholic church has a long history of interference in Roman Catholic countries, aiming to block comprehensive sex education in schools. More recently, other churches and conservative groups have adopted similar strategies to influence educational policies in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America.

In 2011, a school booklet advocating “Schools without Homophobia,” prepared by the Brazilian Ministry of Education, was recalled after strong pressure from conservative movements, evangelical and Catholic leaders. It was denounced as an instrument to promote homosexuality among children and to destroy families. In 2014, the debate over Brazil’s National Education Plan was the battlefield of conservative and religious groups against what they called “gender ideology”. Supported by civil society mobilization, including a organization (ironically) called Escola sem Partido [Schools without Politics] conservative members of congress overruled a clause in the Brazilian National Education Plan that stated, among the goals of the public educational system, overcoming educational inequalities, with emphasis in the promotion of equality among races, regions, genders and sexual orientations. Vocal critics of anti-discriminatory public policies in education also applied political pressure during the discussion and passing of state and municipal education plans.

Brazil is only one example of a new wave of conservative mobilization that is sweeping Latin America, characterized by the gathering of powerful old economic elites and religious conservative groups. Among its central political strategies, this new wave fights against the inclusion of a gender equality approach in public policies, including school curricula among their principal battlegrounds. Across the region, this movement has won many major disputes with significant impact. They have succeeded on blocking gender approaches and comprehensive sexual education not only in Brazil, but in the Argentinian provinces of Mendoza and Entre Rios, in Monterrey (Mexico), Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and even in the most secular country in the region, Uruguay.
As our forthcoming letter to the Editor of The Lancet (2017) explains, this new wave of conservative mobilization has tangible health effects. By opposing sexual education in the schools as well as the introduction of a gender equality approach within the school curricula, they hinder a core element of public health strategies to empower girls and adolescents, and consequently to prevent teenage pregnancies, which have a devastating negative impact on women, by, for example, contributing to female poverty.

Latin America is already the only region in the world where adolescent pregnancies are not decreasing. . . . Continue reading