By Bene E. Madunagu
My name is Bene E. Madunagu. I work with adolescent girls in Nigeria in the organization Girls’ Power Initiative. I am a Catholic. In many countries of the United Nations — except the Holy See — women, including Catholic women, continue to die in high numbers from pregnancy-related causes. The spread of STDs and HIV/AIDS continues unabated because male and female power relations disempower women in negotiating safe sex practices.
Governments are not making concerted efforts to help women gain access to services essential to addressing their sexual and reproductive health. In many parts of the developing world, a high percentage of pregnancy-related deaths result from abortion complications because too many poor governments yield to political pressures from the Holy See against safe abortion services.
Many married couples who want to regulate their fertility lack access to a method of contraception that is safe and acceptable to them. In many countries, young unmarried people are excluded from contraceptive services, exposing them to increasing risks of STDs, HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancy, and unsafe abortion. Young girls in poor countries lack information and education, as well as access to sexual and reproductive health needs. They face sexual violence and sexual exploitation. Refugee women are raped and have no access to sexual and reproductive services.
These horrendous experiences by girls and women can only be redressed where the human rights of women are respected. Girls and women started to have hopes for their sexual and reproductive well being through the Programme of Action of the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), and the reinforcement of the Programme’s provisions. Five years after Cairo, we have seen positive changes where there has been political will to review laws, adopt policies, and review health structures to reflect the Cairo Programme of Action.
It is important that the Vatican, which claims love for its believers, should acknowledge the right of women to make choices about their lives. We want to move forward. If people have chosen conservatism and want to continue to romanticize the past while benefiting from contemporary scientific and technological gains, we respect their choices. The least we ask of them is that they reciprocate and respect our choices.
The critical issue is the need for resources to enhance the implementation of the Cairo Programme of Action, and to support increased research into areas that will ensure high quality health care for women. It is cultural imperialism for the Holy See to hold back UN proceedings and consensus by opposing the rights of women to choose what is in their sexual and reproductive health interests, as recognized by several UN agreements, programmes of action, and conventions. We women respect the culture and traditions of religious institutions. But whatever faith a woman belongs to has no role in the autonomy and physiology of her body. While all women’s anatomy and physiology are the same, all women do not belong to the same religion. It is therefore ethnically unjust and religious imperialism to seek to impose one religion on all women of the world.
When in the UN—a secular institution—distinguished delegates of different religious affiliations are made to refer to “a statement by the Holy Father,” which is to say the least the most insensitive religious imperialism and disrespect, forcing them to accept another religious position instead of representing the interests of the men, women, and children of their independent nations.
It is not documented anywhere that the United Nations has adopted a particular religion to guide the affairs of this world body. Since there is no such situation, it is our honest view, as we march into the twenty-first century, that the status of the Holy See at the UN be reviewed. The business of the UN goes beyond the soul, and includes the physical, mental, social, and psychological well being of women, men, and children.
Bene E. Madunagu, a biologist and head of the Department of Biological Sicenes and member of the Senate at the University of Calabar in Nigeria, is cofounder of the feminist organization Women in Nigeria, and founder and chair of the executive board of Girls’ Power Initiative. This article is adapted from a speech given at the kickoff of The “See Change” Campaign at the United Nations in March.