Nothing About Us Without Us: Women’s Voices Must Be Heard!

February 21, 2012

Earlier this month we wrote about the right to universal access to health care in the context of the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to defund Planned Parenthood. Yet again this month, women’s health rights are being used as a political football.

The reversal of the Komen Foundation’s decision, in response to public outcry, only amplifies our newest concerns: the voices of affected people must play a role in all policy decisions.

I’m sure you’ve seen the now-infamous photo of an all-male witness panel at the February 17 hearing on contraception and religious freedom, held by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The Democratic minority nominated a woman for this panel—an average woman with experience of the implications of insurance companies denying coverage of birth control. She was denied as a witness by the majority GOP, apparently because she was deemed unqualified to speak to the issue. Two women were witnesses on the second panel, one a female physician.

A woman was declared unqualified to speak to an issue that directly affects only women. Yes, contraception and conception of course impact men. But they are not the ones who can get pregnant, be faced with the choice of whether a baby is an affordable option, who sometimes risk death because of complications that contraception may have prevented. Men have rights in these circumstances. But their voices alone do not begin to cover the issue thoroughly.

The human rights framework requires that government represents the needs and voices of all people.

And yet, shutting women out of political processes is nothing new, nor is it uniquely a U.S. issue or unique to this Congress. This is not unlike situations we frequently find in peace processes, where men are deemed “qualified” to participate in negotiations because they wielded a gun during the conflict, while women who endured the conflict are not included, though they certainly have opinions that could make peace processes more responsive and lasting.

It is gender-based discrimination, and it is a violation of human rights.

Worldwide, it is a long slog to shift away from our historically male-dominated power structure. But the men and women currently in power have a responsibility to protect and hear the voices of those without power. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform failed miserably at upholding the responsibility of our elected officials to actually represent us and enable the public’s participation in politics.

The politicization of women’s health often leads to violations of the human right to health. But it also violates many other fundamental human rights. And, perhaps most importantly, it represents a basic disrespect of the power of women to be educated, informed, and opinionated. These, too, are human rights. And they must be protected.

To get involved, learn more about our women’s rights work and join our Women’s Human Rights Network on Facebook.