ARGENTINA: Major Shift in Political Support for Reproductive Health

ARGENTINA: Major Shift in Political Support for Reproductive Health

Inter Press Service; October 6, 2004  Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Oct 6 (IPS) – The Argentine government of Néstor Kirchner is forging ahead with a strong agenda of sexual and reproductive health policies that is in line with demands by women’s

The centre-left administration, which has taken a proactive approach on human rights issues across the board, has left behind what activists call a ”lost decade” of conservative policies and the
staunch defence of strict ”pro-family” positions in international conferences on women’s rights and population issues.

Seeking to make up for lost time, Argentina has achieved in just over two years what it failed to do in more than a decade, say women’s rights groups.

To strengthen the momentum towards guaranteeing women’s reproductive rights, Argentina has begun to work in a close alliance with the rest of the countries of the Mercosur (Southern Common
Market) trade bloc — Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, as well as associate members Bolivia and Chile.

The ”paradigm shift”, as Argentina’s National Women’s Council describes the change, came in the wake of the late 2001 social, economic and political collapse and subsequent crisis, which drove up poverty
and child malnutrition to levels never before seen in Latin America’s number three economy.

The change is incredible. We have begun to work together, and we are no longer ashamed to defend the government’s position,” the director of the Foundation for Studies and Research on Women, Mabel
Bianco, told IPS.

Bianco headed the National AIDS Programme under the government of president Fernando de la Rúa (1999-2001), who was forced to resign by an outbreak of rioting and protests in December 2001.

The executive director of the Women’s Social and Political Institute, María José Lubertino, said ”there’s a new synergy” between the government and civil society organisations, as seen in the latest regional meetings and forums on women and population issues.

Anti-abortion groups have complained of the change. ”Argentina has gone over to the pro-abortion side,” according to a recent statement by Puerto Vida, a web site that posts information from the Pro-Vida (pro-life) network and its anti-abortion campaign.

As civil society delegates, Bianco and Lubertino took part in nearly all of the United Nations conferences on women and population held in the first half of the 1990s, as well as the meetings held in the
second half of the decade to monitor compliance with the commitments adopted at the global conferences.

”The positions taken by the Argentine government, which in that period was headed by president Carlos Menem (1989-1999), really embarrassed us,” said Bianco. 

In the international conferences, Argentina took conservative stances aligned with the Vatican and with Muslim countries, which ran counter to the positions taken by most of the nations of Latin America.

The main arguments in defence of those ”extreme” positions took aim at sexual and reproductive rights, said Bianco.

”They argued that lurking behind family planning, HIV/AIDS prevention and sex education initiatives was the aim of  decriminalising abortion, and they defended the concept of the traditional family, out
of fear of recognising homosexual unions,” she said.

Things got to the extent that the use of the word ‘gender’ was even banned,” said Bianco. ”It was a pact between the (Menem) administration and the Church hierarchy, in which women were negotiated
like currency of exchange.”

A total of 24 bills on sexual and reproductive health were introduced in Congress, and blocked, during Menem’s two presidential terms. (It was Menem who declared the ”day of the unborn child” in

Not until October 2002 (under caretaker president Eduardo Duhalde) did the legislature approve wide-ranging sexual and reproductive health legislation that had the broad backing of women’s
rights groups and other non-governmental organisations.”The crisis made the problems of poverty, teen pregnancy and child malnutrition so visible that many people, even people of good faith who agreed with the most conservative arguments, underwent a change of heart and began to support family planning,” said Bianco.

The quota for a minimum proportion of female candidates, which was adopted by the lower house of parliament in the early 1990s, was incorporated by the Senate in 2000.

That led to a rise in representation of women in the Senate, which in turn gave a decisive boost to legislative support for reproductive health initiatives, reflecting the growing public awareness of and backing for such policies.

Shortly after the October 2002 legislation was approved, the National Programme on Sexual and Reproductive Health went into effect.

The Programme guarantees men, women and adolescents free access to birth control in public hospitals, and has included the creation of centres for the early diagnosis of breast cancer and cancer
of the cervix.

The Health Ministry has also designed HIV/AIDS prevention programmes that include the widespread distribution of condoms. And Health Minister Ginés González García has called for a debate on incorporating sex education at all levels of the public education system, with the aim of preventing teen pregnancy.

But the backlash was not long in coming. Pro-Vida has loudly expressed its opposition to the handing out of condoms and to the sexual and reproductive health legislation and programme.

The pro-life group argues that the Argentine government’s shift in position amounts to ”an ethical defeat”, and complains that Argentina now ”officially favours abortion, lesbianism and other aberrations.”

But the representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Argentina, María del Carmen Feijoó, said the country’s new stance is welcome and that it shows how important political leadership
is when it comes to moving forward on social issues.

”This is absolutely exceptional for Argentina, because in the 1990s, at each international forum, objections were raised (by this country) to block any advances on this issue,” she told IPS. ”But this year Argentina has not only fallen into step with the rest of the region, but is making progress in terms of compliance with the internationally adopted targets and commitments.”

Bianco said the new partnership between the Foreign Ministry, the Health Ministry and civil society organisations has been the key for moving ahead on social and reproductive health issues in the past

But one big challenge remains, she added. ”Our concern now is to overcome the remaining resistance in the Education Ministry, to be able to begin to provide sex education in public schools, at all levels
of the educational process.”

Inter Press Service — 10/6/04 -; To view this article, go to:

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