Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) Inquiry concerning the Philippines (CEDAW/C/OP.8/PHL/1)
In the second inquiry conducted under Article 8 of the Optional Protocol of the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women found the Philippine government accountable for grave and systematic violations of women’s rights, particularly as relates to their sexual and reproductive health rights.
In 1991, the Philippines delegated responsibility for “people’s health and safety” to the local level. In exercise of this power, an executive order 003 (“EO 003”) was issued in Manila, in 2000 which declared that the city would take an “affirmative stand on pro-life issues”. In response to a joint submission from NGOs in 2008, the UN Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women (Committee) conducted an inquiry into alleged human rights violations resulting from the enforcement of EO 003.
The Committee found that EO 003, in practice, resulted in a systematic denial of affordable access to modern methods of contraception and related information and services. This, in turn, led to unplanned pregnancies, unsafe abortions, unnecessary and preventable maternal deaths and increased exposure of women to HIV/AIDS. The Committee observed that the lives and health of thousands of women were put at risk and that the impact of the order particularly harmed disadvantaged groups of women, including poor women and adolescent girls, as well as women in abusive relationships. It was noted that impact of EO 003 was compounded by the funding ban on modern contraception in Manila’s executive order 030.
The Committee concluded that the Philippine government is accountable for grave and systematic violations of women’s rights under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), especially their rights to health [Art 12] and family planning [Art. 16 (1)(e); Art. 10 (h)]. Although the aforementioned orders were issued by the City of Manila, the Committee emphasized that delegation of power does not in any way negate or reduce the direct responsibility of the State party to fulfil its obligation to ensure the rights of all women in its jurisdiction. The Philippines clearly failed to meet this obligation.
The Committee report calls on the Filipino government to respect, protect, and fulfill women’s reproductive rights and address the unmet need for contraception by ensuring universal and affordable access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health services, commodities and related information, including by legalizing access to emergency contraception. The Committee has issued a robust set of recommendations, which includes urging the Philippines to revoke executive orders 003 and 030, decriminalize abortion, and sensitize government representatives towards eliminating ideological barriers that limit women’s rights.
Prior to the publication of the Committee findings in 2015 and as referenced in the Committee report itself, there have been certain positive developments towards the realization of women’s sexual and reproductive health rights in the Philippines. These include the Reproductive Health Act (RH Act) being signed into law in 2012, although its constitutionality was upheld only in 2014. While full implementation has not yet been felt, this law is promising in that it guarantees universal and free access to nearly all modern contraceptives. The law may have revoked, in effect at least, the aforementioned executive orders. Consider, for example, that a case filed against the government challenging the constitutionality of Executive Order 003 and demanding its revocation was dismissed in 2014 on the grounds that the case is “a moot point,” given the passage of the RH Act. However explicitly repealing the executive orders 003 and 030, as recommended by the Committee, will clearly address any questions or confusion regarding whether they still exist or not. Building on these positive developments and implementing the Committee recommendations will constitute concrete steps by the Philippines towards meeting its obligations under CEDAW.
The NGOs involved in this case are the Philippines-based Task Force CEDAW Inquiry as well as the ESCR-Net member organizations: the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) and the International Women’s Rights Action Network Asia-Pacific (IWRAW). The Philippines-based Task Force CEDAW Inquiry (Task Force) consists of 20 member NGOs: EnGendeRights (co-convenor) which is also an ESCR-Net member organization, WomenLEAD (co-convenor); Alternative Law Groups (ALG); Democratic Socialist Women of the Philippines (DSWP); Family Planning Organization of the Philippines (FPOP); Health Action Information Network (HAIN); Health & Development Initiatives Institute, Inc. (HDII); Institute for Social Studies and Action, Philippines (ISSA); Kapisanan ng mga Kamag-anak ng Migranteng Manggagawang Pilipino, Inc (KAKAMMPI); MAKALAYA; Philippine Legislators' Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD); Philippine NGO Council on Population, Health and Welfare, Inc., (PNGOC); Population Services Pilipinas, Inc. (PSPI); Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panlegal/Alternative Legal Assistance Center (SALIGAN-ALAC); Save the Children USA-Philippines Country Office; The Forum for Family Planning and Development, Inc.; Woman Health Philippines; Women’s Crisis Center; Women’s Legal Bureau (WLB); Women’s Media Circle Foundation, Inc.
These organizations sent the CEDAW Committee a joint submission on 2nd June 2008 requesting the Committee to conduct an inquiry in the Philippines on systematic and grave violations of rights guaranteed in CEDAW. In the course of the inquiry the groups submitted updated information to the Committee on 23rd April 2009, 13th July 2010 and 30th April 2012.
This case is significant since it is only the second inquiry conducted under Article 8 of the Optional Protocol to CEDAW and the first on sexual and reproductive health rights. The findings here will not only have an impact in the Philippines, but will also likely influence developments in other countries where women face similar egregious violations of their rights.
The release of the Committee report is timely because the Committee will review the compliance of the Philippines with CEDAW in July 2016 during its periodic review. The current recommendations of the Committee will surely be addressed then and this may provide an added impetus for their effective implementation.