We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby. Right?

International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate the successes of the global women’s movement. But perhaps it’s also a good day to read some cautionary tales, especially in regard to women’s reproductive rights.

In Kenya, where 2,000 women die every year from unsafe abortions–those deaths comprise 30 percent of Kenya’s maternal death rate–the debate over abortion rights is threatening to derail a proposed new constitution, even though there is no explicit reference to abortion in the draft.

A multi-religious country, Kenya’s conservative Christian leaders and others from the anti-abortion lobby are targeting draft language that declares “everyone has a right to life” but leaves unspecified when life begins. Even though the language mirrors that included in other states’ constitutions, the National Council of Churches (NCCK) and other conservatives believe that it’s sliding toward a slippery slope of expanded abortion rights in Kenya.

Opposition also centers on a concern that the draft constitution does not “reinforce” existing anti-abortion laws. For now, Kenya’s constitutional framers have refused to kowtow to the conservative lobby, but the clergy and others have warned that the abortion rights issue will “‘make or break’ the constitution review process.”

In Nicaragua, second only to Haiti in rankings of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere, so-called “therapeutic abortions”–performed when a pregnant woman’s life is in danger–have been banned, along with abortion in cases of rape or incest. Legal for “medical reasons” in Nicaragua since 1893, abortion was criminalized in October 2006 during the campaign that brought President Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista government to power. The Nicaraguan parliament passed a law making it illegal and punishable by up to eight years in prison to both perform or receive abortions, or to provide treatment to pregnant women that “may hurt or kill the embryo or fetus.”

Restrictions this severe exist in only a handful of countries, including Chile, El Salvador, Malta and the Philippines. Yet Nicaraguan Interior Minister Ana Isabel Morales says, “The legal reforms and new provisions referring to abortion in Nicaragua are the result of the exercise of sovereignty in our country; this is not a religious issue.”

Finally, turn your attention to Nigeria, where being pregnant seems a huge risk: Roughly 144 women die every day in the country due to pregnancy or childbirth. As Sandra Obiago, director of Communicating for Change in Nigeria, puts it, “Imagine a plane crash in Nigeria every day, carrying only pregnant women.”

Nigeria trails only a handful of countries, including Sierra Leone and Niger, as one of the worst countries in the world to be pregnant and/or give birth, despite claiming the second largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa and being the eighth largest oil exporter in the world.

We don’t live in a bubble, and we can’t afford to ignore the extreme lessons being learned in other countries. In the U.S., too, abortion rights remain under siege, especially as the U.S. Congress wrestles with health-care reform.

We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. That’s one lesson we have to keep front and center as we celebrate International Women’s Day.

Read more Ms. coverage on global women’s rights here


Tamera Gugelmeyer is a Board Member and Executive Director of The Sisterhood is Global Institute (http://www.sigi.org). An international feminist activist and writer on online activism, women and war, and young feminist politics, Tamera concentrates on transforming women's organizations into successful, sustainable non-profits. She has consulted on fundraising, new media, marketing, and communications strategies for such national women's organizations as The Women’s Media Center, Women’s Environment and Development Organization, and the National Council for Research on Women. Experienced in both for-profit and non-profit, Tamera worked on corporate marketing and communications at Cisco Systems, strategic fundraising at Southern Methodist University, and targeted marketing and communications campaigns at the Dallas Women’s Foundation. She co-founded the first interdisciplinary graduate women's organization at the University of Denver, completing her MA in International Studies with a focus on women’s political participation in the Middle East, where she lived and taught. She created and co-founded GlobalSister.org, and serves on the boards of Feminist.com and Women and Hollywood, and as an advisor to LoveYourBody.org.